[blogathon] Against Pokemon-Style Polyamory

This is the sixth post in my SSA blogathon. Don’t forget to donate!

When I first started exploring and getting into polyamory about a year ago, one of the things that appealed to me about it was this idea of having “different partners” for “different needs.” It made a lot of sense to me and seemed like a rational, ethical justification for dating multiple people with everyone’s knowledge and consent.

You’ll see this rationale repeated and defended in various books and articles about polyamory, and it generally goes something like this: we all have various needs and desires when it comes to sexual/romantic relationships. Often, one person can’t possibly fulfill all of these needs and desires for you. Maybe you have a particular kink that the person you love just isn’t interested in. Maybe you thrive on the excitement of casual sex or brief relationships but still want to have a long-term, serious relationship. So you look for different partners to fulfill your different needs, and the fact that a given partner can’t be everything you want in a partner doesn’t have to prevent you from being seriously, passionately, and healthily involved with this person.

So yeah, that all sounds good in theory. But in practice, it has started giving me an uncomfy feeling over the past year. I couldn’t put my finger on why until I read this great post on Tumblr:

The idea that we should look to a single person to fulfill all our needs offends me, but so does this notion that we each have some exact checklist of needs, and that the path to fulfillment is assembling just the right combination of partners.

Someone reblogged it and added this: “People aren’t Pokemon where you are trying to build a team. Or trying to collect them either :B”

And suddenly, there it was. All of my discomfort perfectly articulated. What I’d encountered was Pokemon-Style Polyamory–the idea that polyamory is about assembling some ideal collection of partners to conveniently fulfill all of one’s needs and desires.

A screenshot of a first-generation Pokemon game, showing a team made up of Raichu, Gyarados, Lapras, Moltres, Exeggutor, and Nidoqueen.
Looks like a pretty strong team!

There are a number of problems with this idea. First of all, it might not be practically possible. While it’s often said that polyamory requires a lot of self-awareness–which is true–being able to literally make a list of all your “needs” might not be feasible for most people. For people with very specific sexual preferences, it’s possible to be like, “I need a partner who’s willing to Dom me,” or “I need a partner with whom I can explore [X Fetish].” But sexual/romantic relationships are rarely this simple.

Further, except in the case of specific sexual preferences or relationship configurations, how exactly does one shop around for a partner who fits their specifications? Suppose I really love cooking with a partner, but my primary partner doesn’t really like doing that (this isn’t true, he totally loves doing that). Am I really going to go on OkCupid and specify that I’m looking for a partner with whom to go on dates, have sex, and cook meals? While I could certainly do that, the likelihood that anyone else out there is looking for that specific thing is pretty low, and unlikely to work–because most people want more from a partner than just someone to sleep with and cook meals with.

Or to make it even more abstract: suppose my partner’s not the best at listening when I’m going through something difficult that I’d like to talk about (also false, but suppose). How do I go about finding a partner for the specific purpose of being a good listener (and also being, well, a partner)?

So there are at least a few practical challenges to such an approach. I’m not saying it wouldn’t work; just that it would be pretty hard to make it work. I’m sure it’s been done.

The more important challenge to this view, though, is an ethical one. Ultimately, what rubs me the wrong way about this approach to polyamory is that it feels objectifying. Rather than looking for partners in order to be close to people, have fun with them, build lives with them, have a single fantastic night with them, etc., you’re looking for partners to “fulfill” particular “needs.” You’re kind of treating them like objects.

That’s not to say that the end result could never be a mutually satisfying, respectful partnership in which you see each other holistically rather than just as means to ends. But it’s an instrumental view of sex and dating. “I need this, so I will do this to get it.”

Personally, if someone wanted to date or hook up with me because of a specific trait that I have that fulfills one of their needs–say, that I’m a good listener or am willing to do X or Y in bed or like going on dates that involve concerts and museums–I would probably say no. I would feel objectified. I want to be seen as a whole person, as the sum of all of my traits, not just as a way to fulfill a particular need that someone has.

(Of course, many poly folks might say that not being limited to one person–or seeing more than one person–is a “need” that they have, so they are poly in order to fulfill that need. I think that’s a different sort of justification, though.)

Although this view had once appealed to me, when I read that Tumblr post I immediately realized that this is not why I’m poly. I’m not poly because I have different “needs” that I must assemble an optimal set of partners in order to fulfill. I’m poly because I love more than one person at a time. I dream of more than one person at a time. I want more than one person at a time. And it feels awful to limit myself to just one when the world is so full of people to love, and life is so short and so ultimately meaningless unless we create that meaning for ourselves.

I want to emphasize that if this works for you and your partners and nobody feels used or objectified (unless they want to feel that way), go for it. It’s not my place to tell anyone how to set up their relationships. I don’t think this approach is Bad or Wrong. I just think that this is an approach worthy of thinking carefully about and being cautious about, especially if this is how we explain and promote polyamory to others.

Extra moderation note: I am not interested in debating whether or not polyamory is healthy/natural/”moral”/feasible. If you want to argue about that, you can do it elsewhere. Because if you tell me that polyamory is unhealthy or never works, you are literally denying my lived experience and that of many friends and colleagues. Not cool. For some people, polyamory is unhealthy and doesn’t work; for others, monogamy is unhealthy and doesn’t work.

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[blogathon] Against Pokemon-Style Polyamory

Is It Wrong To Help Someone Cheat?

A while ago, a great blog called Polyskeptic had a post about the ethics of helping someone else cheat. Dan Savage had said on an episode of his podcast that it’s definitely not okay, and Wes of Polyskeptic disagreed.

Wes brings up some good points about what exactly is wrong with cheating, and it’s not the sex itself:

The poly community has, shall we say, an unconventional view of cheating. We tend to say that the problem with cheating isn’t the sex, it’s the lying. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having sex with a person in a relationship. The problem is that when a monogamous person cheats, they are being dishonest with their partner. The harm is caused by the betrayal, not by the sex.

The problem with the standard advice is that, once the proposition has been made, the harm has already been done. By turning down the proposition, you’re turning a cheater into merely an attempted cheater. Is that really any better? To my mind, it is not. When someone attempts to cheat, the betrayal has already occurred.

He goes on to say that simply refusing to help the person cheat is not in itself morally good unless you also inform their partner that they propositioned you, because the harm has already been done by the proposition itself. But people have no moral obligation to protect others’ relationships, and since helping the person cheat wouldn’t make the situation any worse than it already is, you might as well do it.

Dan Savage’s preferred option – rejecting the cheater – is premised on the idea that you have a responsibility for the health and quality of that relationship. As I’ve explained above, rejecting the cheater is, at best, not helping the relationship, and at worst harming the relationship. If you accept that you have a responsibility for that relationship (what I call the “be a hero” option), the only moral choice is to inform the cheater’s partner (or at least make reasonable efforts to do so). Any other choice makes you an accomplice to fraud. If you truly think you have an obligation to that relationship (which I don’t think that you do), your obligation must be to ensure that it isn’t being conducted under false pretenses.  Otherwise, you’re helping the cheater to hide their cheating.

It’s an interesting argument, but ultimately I disagree.

First of all, for many monogamous people, wanting to cheat is not at all the same thing as actually cheating. Back when I was monogamous and thought about this sort of thing a lot, I knew that even though I would be really hurt if my boyfriend tried to cheat but wasn’t able to, I would be even more hurt if he tried to cheat and actually did. It’s not really logical, but for some people it really is about the sex.

Somewhat similarly, there are plenty of poly folks who are completely fine with their partner(s) seeing other people but nevertheless don’t want to know when they’re having sex with someone else, or even who those people are, because it’s unpleasant for them to hear about and makes them feel jealous. So it’s completely possible to be okay with the fact that your partner slept with someone else, but not necessarily with the knowledge that they actually did.

Second, Wes’ argument presumes that being rejected in an attempt to cheat can never be an illuminating or transformative experience for someone, that the person will just shrug and carry on trying to find another person to cheat with. That’s not necessarily the case. Sometimes you fall for someone else, ignore the problems in your current relationship, pursue a fantasy in your mind with this new person, and finally try to cheat with them. Being told “no” can be a wake-up call that causes you to realize that you want to stay committed to your current partner, that you need to work on your relationship with them, or that you need to leave them.

Of course, sometimes it doesn’t work that way. Some people never do develop that self-awareness. But if I had a chance to help someone develop it by not helping them cheat on their partner, I’d take it.

The idea that refusing to help someone cheat without informing their partner about the proposition is harmful is also strange to me. If you’re an “accomplice to fraud” if you don’t cheat with them, how are you not one if you do cheat with them? While informing their partner would arguably be a more “moral” option than just doing nothing, it also overrides the couple’s right to conduct their relationship without your interference. And, yes, it’s too much effort for most people to do even if they wanted to. How would you even get the person’s partner’s contact info?

Whether or not it’s ethically wrong to help someone cheat, there are tons of reasons it’s at least practically a bad idea. If someone’s willing to betray someone’s trust, they’re probably also willing to lie to you about STIs and birth control, for instance. And although you may not be pursuing a monogamous relationship with this person (at least, hopefully not, since they’re with someone else), even casual, open arrangements can involve violations of trust. That’s why even poly folks tend to have such a thing as “cheating.”

In any case, I can’t quite agree with the view that other people’s relationships are absolutely not your responsibility and that if you happen to participate in fucking up someone’s relationship, it doesn’t matter because it’s not your job to preserve people’s relationships. Obviously you don’t carry nearly as great a responsibility for other people’s commitments than the people who have made those commitments, and obviously helping someone cheat isn’t nearly as wrong as cheating, but the idea that we’re all just individual little islands and carry no obligations to each other seems way too libertarian for me.

Personally–and you don’t have to agree with me or do the same thing–if someone asked me to help them cheat, I would say no, and I would strongly urge them to either ask their partner for an open relationship or think about what’s causing them to want to cheat. I would urge them to do that, and that’s it. I wouldn’t play counselor or mediator, I wouldn’t look up their partner on Facebook and let them know what happened. This would be my way of trying to leave the world and these two people in a slightly better state than I found them.

Is It Wrong To Help Someone Cheat?

Creating More Accurate Media Representations of Stigmatized Identities

Greta recently wrote about Yes, We’re Open, a new indie film about a couple in an open relationship. She wrote:

A lot of why it was frustrating can be summed up in the question I asked the filmmakers in their post-film Q&A: “Given that the template of San Francisco poly culture is that it’s hyper-ethical, hyper-processing, talking everything to death… why did you choose to make the poly couple in this movie so skanky, and not particularly ethical?”

They clearly understood the question, and the context for it. They agreed about poly people, if anything, tending to be hyper-ethical to the point of relentlessly over-processing everything, and hyper-honest to the point of being TMI and never shutting up. In fact, one of the filmmakers is himself non-monogamous. But they were making a comedy, they said, and unethical people are just funnier. For a long-format story, anyway.

She later says:

I don’t want every poly character in every TV show or movie to be a perfect paragon of sensitivity and high-minded ethics. I’m okay with them being flawed and human. The need for role models isn’t a need for one perfect hero: it’s a need to see that you have options, other than the ones your culture is unfairly slotting you into. (Not to mention the need for the rest of the world to see that as well.) I don’t think every producer of pop culture has an obligation to single-handedly fill that entire gaping hole. And again, I don’t want propaganda. Propaganda is boring.

But given that there are so few poly characters in pop culture, and even fewer who don’t fall into the stereotype of unethical seducers and skanks with no self-control, I think producers of pop culture do have an obligation to not actively perpetuate that stereotype.

I left a comment there but subsequently realized I had way too many Thoughts for just a comment, so here we go.

It’s true that creators of pop culture are (and should be) primarily concerned with telling a good story, not teaching us morals or otherwise educating us. When the latter goals take priority, you end up with the insipid morality tales that comprise much of children’s media.

However, when media presents a false or misleading portrait or a group that is already stigmatized and misunderstood by the public, that’s a negative externality that should be dealt with. But how?

I think that one way the entertainment industry falters in presenting characters who have a stigmatized identity is by making their entire character all about that identity.

Sometimes they do this by having the character confirm a stereotype. In the film Greta wrote about (which, full disclosure, I haven’t seen), the poly characters are unethical and obsessed with sex. Another film might have, say, a flamboyant gay best friend or an uptight Asian student who’s obsessed with her grades. Even if that character also does a bunch of other stuff, the prevalent stereotypes keep the audience focused on the character’s polyness or gayness or race.

So that’s one way. It’s the most obvious way, so many people rightfully attack it these days. A less obvious way is making that character’s entire story arc–or, indeed, the entire film or show–all about that stigmatized identity. That’s what Yes, We’re Open is. It’s not a film that happens to have poly characters or that references polyamory in some way. It’s a film about polyamory.

Because of that, the central conflict of the film has to be about polyamory, too. And that means that the filmmakers have to exaggerate. After all, if you made a documentary about my open relationship or that of one of my best friends or all the other poly folks I know, it’d be boring as hell. Making it interesting requires making it unrealistic, and because most people don’t spend much time reminding themselves that entertainment is not reality, they’re going to watch the film and think, “Oh, so this is what polyamory is like.”

The same thing happens to a lesser extent with any film that’s primarily about relationships. Romcoms are unrealistic because their writers have to create an unrealistic amount of conflict in order for the film to be interesting and funny. So you see massive failures to communicate, glorification of abusive relationships, and other crap.

The most realistic portrayals of romance in film tend to be the stories that are mostly about something else. For instance, Eric and Tami’s marriage in the show Friday Night Lights has been praised for its realism. Eric and Tami love each other and their children and work to improve their relationship, but there’s still conflict in it. It’s just not enough conflict to base an entire show on, which works because the show is primarily about a small-town Texas football team, not about the relationship between two characters. That’s one of the reasons it’s realistic.

That’s why I believe that the best way to improve representations of stigmatized individuals and misunderstood identities in the media is actually to make the story about something other than those identities. Make a spy thriller where one of the main characters happens to have two partners. Make a sci-fi film in which the main character turns down a potential love interest because the main character happens to be asexual. Present these possibilities as just a part of life.

This approach won’t fix all of the problems. It also doesn’t have to be applied universally. There should be films out there are are about polyamory or homosexuality or whatever, although they need to be made by people who know what they’re talking about. These films can serve their own purpose.

But in order to really normalize a lifestyle or identity, you have to present it as realistically as possible, and that means presenting those characters as fully-formed individuals who are not defined by that particular identity. If the subject you’re addressing (polyamory, homosexuality, etc.) is the only source of conflict in the film, you’ll end up having to exaggerate that subject for the sake of entertainment.

When something like this happens in movies that address very common and accepted things–such as, in the case of romcoms, monogamous heterosexual dating–misrepresentation is still a bit of a problem, but at least people can draw on their personal experiences and those of friends and family, as well as on their knowledge of the dozens of other films and shows that address that experience, in order to evaluate whether or not the film is realistic.

But when it happens in movies that deal with unfamiliar and misunderstood experiences, like polyamory, the audience is much less likely to have other sources of information about that subject readily available. So they end up with glaringly inaccurate ideas about that subject.

Creating More Accurate Media Representations of Stigmatized Identities

There Is No Universal Definition Of "Cheating"

A very disturbing thing I found here.

Every time I read a women’s website or magazine these days, I come upon a headline that demands to know, “IS THIS CHEATING?!?!” Is sending flirty Facebook messages to someone else cheating? Is sending them nude pics cheating? Is flirting cheating? Is there a chance you could actually be cheating on your boyfriend and not even realize it?

Technology seems to exacerbate these existential questions because it keeps giving us new ways to violate our partners’ trust (but, on the flipside, it keeps giving us new ways to be sexual). Coming up to someone in person and stripping naked is one thing; sending a nude photo of yourself to them is another (or feels like another). And so we have to have these endless conversations about what exactly cheating is.

Here’s the thing, though. If you’re reading a magazine article to find out if you cheated or not, you’re doing it wrong, because it can’t answer that question for you. The only person who can tell you that is your partner.

Nobody else can tell you what “cheating” means in your particular relationship because it’s different in each one. In monogamous relationships, most people take the “default” definition of cheating, which includes any sort of sexual contact with someone else. But even then, what about flirty Facebook messages? What about “emotional cheating,” when you have feelings for someone else (even if you don’t act on them)? Some people count these things as cheating; others don’t.

Monogamous relationships can have a lot of wiggle room, too. I’ve known many couples in which one partner is straight and the other is bisexual, and the straight partner doesn’t mind if the bisexual partner hooks up with people of their own gender (as long as it’s just hooking up). Long-distance relationships can also have certain “rules” for what the partners can do while they’re apart.

In non-monogamous relationships, there’s an even greater variety of configurations and definitions of cheating. Some couples restrict which types of sexual acts they can do outside of the primary relationship, or they specify that sex without barriers outside of that relationship would be cheating. Some people form triads or group marriages and forbid all sexual contact outside of that established group. Some decide that you can only hook up outside of the relationship at certain events or in particular spaces, or if your primary partner is present and either watching or participating.

Meanwhile, in other non-monogamous relationships–for instance, mine–the boundaries aren’t about specific acts or people, but rather about communication. If my partner or I act secretively about other people we’re seeing, we’re cheating. If we’re not considerate to each other in terms of making plans with those other people, we’re cheating.

But people don’t just come to these agreements by separately reading Cosmo articles about what cheating is and then never discussing it.

So, if you’re unsure of what counts as cheating in your relationship, you have three options:

1. Say nothing and avoid all activities that could possibly be considered cheating, thus potentially missing out on some great opportunities;

2. Say nothing and do whatever you feel like doing while convincing yourself that your partner wouldn’t see it as cheating, thus potentially, you know, cheating on your partner;

3. Ask your partner what they would like the boundaries of the relationship to be.

I can see why that third option might feel awkward or uncomfortable. If you ask your partner, “What are our boundaries as a couple? What could I potentially do that would make you feel like I cheated on you?”, there’s a chance that your partner will interpret that as you “looking for permission” to get involved in some way with other people. But if they understand the importance of communication in relationships, they’ll see it for what it is–an attempt to make sure that you’re on the same page and that neither of you will be hurt by a misunderstanding about relationship boundaries.

That’s also why it’s a good idea to have that discussion at the beginning of a relationship rather than once it’s been going on for a while, but late is definitely better than never.

The great thing about a discussion like this is that it also allows for discussing things that aren’t “cheating” per se, but nevertheless feel like a violation of boundaries. For some people, it’s not “cheating” if their partner flirts harmlessly (as in, with no intentions for anything else) with someone else, but they wouldn’t feel comfortable if their partner did that right in front of them. For some people–it’s hard for me to imagine this myself, but I’ve heard of it–it feels “wrong” somehow if their partner dances with someone else at a party. Some people would want to know if their partner develops a crush on someone else, but that doesn’t mean it’s “cheating” if they do. Nevertheless, finding out that their partner has been keeping a new crush secret would feel like a violation of trust.

All of these nuances can be made clear by a conversation about boundaries.

Prescriptive definitions of cheating (i.e. “this is what cheating must mean for everyone”) don’t serve anyone. They keep people stuck in a very restrictive version of monogamy (not that there’s anything wrong with monogamy, as long as you consciously choose it). They allow for misunderstandings that hurt people, such as when one partner thinks flirting with others is okay and the other feels like it’s cheating. They prevent people from creating their own relationship models that work best for them, and encourage them instead to conform to the dominant cultural conception of what a committed, “faithful” relationship is.

Edit: A reader and fellow blogger, Patrick, noted that the part of this post that deals with relationships between straight and bisexual people might be reinforcing the stereotype that all such relationships involve an agreement that the bisexual person can hook up with others of their gender. I definitely don’t want to reinforce that stereotype, so I asked him how I might have rephrased that in a way that was clearer and less stereotype-y. He suggested this:

“I’ve known many mixed-orientation couples (one partner is straight and the other is bisexual), and in some of them the straight partner doesn’t mind if their partner hooks up with people of their own gender (as long as it’s within their negotiated boundaries).”

I like this phrasing a lot more, so I decided to append this here. A huge thank-you to Patrick for pointing this out and suggesting an improvement. 🙂

There Is No Universal Definition Of "Cheating"