First, let me root you in my life. I am 45. Bisexual. Happily married to one man. Blissfully partnered to another. My husband has another steady partner too. As I started writing this, we were all together at a conference organized by the German-language Polyamory Network (PolyAmore Netzwerk). “The Polyamory Handbook,” by Peter J. Benson, was on my table.
I am the happiest that I have been in years, despite all of the hellfire-and-brimstone rhetoric about sex that most of us Americans take as truth. Those Bible-thumping days, long over, have no more hold over my heart than, sorry to say, “The Polyamory Handbook.” In fact, I see this work —and too much of the recent “what is polyamory” articles — as a mere mirror of the same picture that has been shoved in front of my face for years: namely, that long-term romantic love should be the greatest pursuit of my life. As a Christian, just with one husband. As a Polyamorist, with several. One night stands, smutty club sex, affairs, ethically questionable hookups, and even “serial monogamy” are all viewed by the most vocal proponents of both models as the failings of our baser selves.
I don’t buy it. And, like the Not-All-Like-That Christians, I’m taking a public stand to give witness to the lives of us others: The Poly-Bible and its dogmatic leaders do not represent me.
It’s not that I am unhappy with long-term relationships. I’m a proponent, really. Whether in work, with friends, or with family, I personally find that long-term relationships strengthen trust, allow us vulnerability, and increase our sense of compassion for all the positives and negatives that make us simple humans. It’s welcome work — and I say work deliberately, because it does involve greater effort than any casual connection ever demands. But it comes with great rewards too, in shared living — the dishes! the trash collecting! the dinner parties that follow with even more dishes and trash collecting! — and in sexual expression. In my long-term sexual life, I have loved becoming an expert in my partners’ bodies, in shedding my newbie anxieties and in relishing each exhalation, each intake, and each physical twist and turn of our shared sexual moments.
As much as I love long-term love, I also love casual connections. I’m a proponent of that too, really. And they can be really good — in the same way that I believe an unexpected and lively exchange with a stranger on the street about a book she has in her hand can be as genuinely pleasurable as spending two hours with a fellow member of my since-1997-founded book group. I have enjoyed mind-blowing sexual experiences with men and women I’d not known before nor seen since. I have gotten quickly intimate (and quickly off) with people who, surprisingly, became more to me for a short while thereafter. I’ve been a mistress and a plaything. Moreover, in being “out” about these experiences, I’ve met plenty of men and women for whom this has also been their real (non religious expectations defined) lives.
I know that I am not alone. But lately, in even poly-defined spaces, I’m frustrated to find the same old frames: it’s long-term or not worth it, it’s completely reliable or a waste of time, it’s true blue or to be avoided, it’s love or the wrong pursuit.
Popular sex columnist and gay-married dad Dan Savage coined the term “monogamish” to describe the tendency/desire for those who, within the outwardly socially acceptable monogamous pair bond, otherwise enjoy extramarital dalliances without the expectation of emotional commitment. (I hope I’m representing you well, Dan.) Poly-Bible thumpers are quick to decry that. It’s about LOVE, all caps, they insist, and, THANK YOU FOR NOT CONFUSING US WITH SWINGERS. ((shudder))
Are we really going to stop there? Are we going to throw off the one-partner-for-life lie for the two-partners-at-a-time other one? Are we going to continue to insist that our unthinking tendency to want sex is an abomination, our sins against God or ethical non-monogamy, rather than our return to nature and the reality of chance? Do we engage, ever so subtly, in a new form of slut-shaming, in which we insist that our desire for deep, meaningful, and honest relationships is morally better than promiscuity?
If, as the science proves, we humans are non-monogamous and happily promiscuous beings, everything else is adhering to the social expectations of our time. I’m down with community and social norming. Totally … provided that the community doesn’t insist that a core expression of my humanity is an aberration.
And I am feeling it these days, in my beloved poly community. But for how long? I’m starting to chafe from the reins. The Poly-Bible thumpers are defining us and they’re writing us narrowly as people who are uniquely communicative, uniquely honest, and uniquely good at stomping out jealousy. We love LOVE, first and foremost, so that makes us special. We are sooooo much better than those married-and-in-denial others.
Goddamn it, I can almost see the halos floating over their smug, noble- and sacred-sex-having selves.
Look, you can have your sacred sex as long as you don’t get all uptight because I’m just happily horny.
I believe strongly that there’s nothing unique about our community … except that we’re out as non-monogamists in a public sphere that still defines that as morally sick and, as one poster insisted about me recently, the evidence of a psychologically ill aversion to commitment. We’re not sick for our non-monogamy. But we’re also no more unique in our ability to love more than one at a time than a father who loves all of his kids, a mother who loves both of her parents, and anyone who has ever maintained more than one friendship at a time. Sexual intimacy doesn’t trump that tendency to connect, connect, connect, it’s an extension of the same.
Poly podcaster Cunning Minx reminds us with each broadcast that it’s not all about the sex. Too true. Not all the time. But it’s also not all about the love. Not all the time. And once we root ourselves back in that — foregoing belief in our specialness, that “polymory is not for everyone” trope, and the polyamory-doesn’t-condone rhethoric — we have room in our big human family for the lovebirds and the players, the married-and-monogamous and the swingers, for the chaste and the sluts, and all the love and lust we can handle.
And, really, on the handle it, YES, WE CAN.