Bad Poly’s Poster Child: A Navel-Gaze

This post partly grew out of a conversation with my friend Wesley Fenza, who writes at Living Within Reason. Wesley has a companion blog post with his more measured take on this issue.

Through the lens of mainstream media depictions of polyamory, I am the poster child for Bad Poly (and Bad Non-Monogamy, generally). Posturing for respectability is not for me and never will be, and I am not the least bit sorry.

How did I come to identify as poly and want to be non-monogamous? Neither feminism nor sexual liberation had much to do with it — not that there necessarily are any universally  good or bad reasons for being poly in the first place.

I was not “born this way,” I was bent into this particular shape by a god. Allah told me that polygyny was okay and so I made my peace with it. After all, in Islam, making the permissible forbidden is a sin. That peace was forced to cower in front of the altar of peer pressure.  All the women I knew swore they’d kill a husband who came home bearing news of a co-wife. How could I want to share? So I never told the truth, and joined in with the other women and girls in their half-idle oaths against real and imagined spouses.

But I did want to share, though I hid it well. I dreamed of a wife — for my husband, I told myself (I was hardly ready to deal with my feelings for women). The co-wife would free me from a life of household- and childcare-related tasks. I would be free to roam in search of glory for the Ummah (through me, of course) if Future Husband and I married someone who, like many women I knew, preferred not to work.

Later, after I left Islam, I heard about polyamory thanks to The Montel William Show, and then from cute men I talked to online via OkCupid. My theoretical polyamory came via patriarchal religion, a daytime talk show, and older male internet crushes I met on dating sites. Strike one.

How did I come to live my poly inclinations? Not by opening up as half of a couple with a well-established partner, but through hurting others and being hurt myself.

I entered my first relationship wanting to be poly but sure that I would never get a boyfriend if I insisted on non-monogamy, and ended it in the most cowardly way: by having a rather sordid one-night stand. My second relationship started out open but opened and closed throughout our two-year-eight-month stint as per his whims and my pleading. It was unhealthy all around. I started what is now my cohabiting relationship towards the end of that second relationship, and went through the break-up early into it. My practical poly was incredibly tumultuous even though I was incredibly self-aware, and I tried to be monogamous even though I knew it wouldn’t work for me. Strike two.

How does my non-monogamous relationship function? We don’t have rules or veto power or hierarchies, and sex, while not everything, has plenty to do with it. My relationship style is not respectable and chaste. My longest-standing non-platonic relationship to date is a friend-with-occasional-benefits. I started dating the partner with whom I now live and share most of life while we were each dating other people; we never had to “open up” or have long-winded discussions and negotiations about non-monogamy.

On the other hand, my life is not quite a model of fully-pansexual relationship anarchy. I do not have an equal number of partners of every gender, and men are over-represented in the number. My resources are not distributed in perfectly egalitarian fashion among my partner. I am married to and fully financially support one of them due to his disability. The others vary in terms of how often I see them and how much time I spend with them, and not always due to distance, either.

My relationships don’t align along a “married plus” hierarchy nor do I quite fit in with the relationship anarchy crowd for economic and other reasons. Strike three, I’m out of the Good Poly Club.

How do I approach talking about my relationship style? I don’t bother to appease the biased perceptions of the majority when it comes to other issues, so I don’t do that with my poly, either. I don’t coddle when monogamists do that weird thing they do when someone mentions having more than one partner. I am unapologetic and unwilling to cater to oddly-defensive people. I am not trying to convince anyone that my relationship style is for them, so I’m not sugary-sweet about their naked hostility. A bonus strike if there ever were one.

Everything about my practice of non-monogamy is what poly people interviewed in the media insist on fighting as stereotypes and bad publicity, and yet I’m quite happy, and that’s ultimately what matters.

Main image by John Christian Fjellestad

Bad Poly’s Poster Child: A Navel-Gaze

11 thoughts on “Bad Poly’s Poster Child: A Navel-Gaze

  1. 2

    Not sure the appropriate response to a navel gaze on a community I am not part of, but this and associated links are very interesting and informative:) I do not usually (have to) spend this much time thinking about and explaining my relationships. It must be frustrating.

  2. 3

    Great post. I’m a nudist and have lately come to see that I’m a Bad Nudist in ways similar to your being Bad in Polyamory in that I don’t deny that nudity might sometimes be about sex (so it’s kinda like everything else humans do) and I don’t claim that nudity loses all sexual content after 5 minutes.

    The Good Nudists do have a point with their claims in that being nude in social situations is far less sexy than people who haven’t done it might think, but the hypothesis that sexiness of a situation is statistically independent of nudity in the situation (or the often implied claim that there is a negative corelation) does not match my personal experience.

  3. 4

    It is interesting the different ways people describe how they come to understand their own nonmonogamy. Some seem to just always have known they could never focus themselves entirely on one other person. I struggled with so much guilt for not being able to, when I thought that’s what I wanted, or rather what I should want (for religious reasons). Turns out, fiercely loving someone can’t make me not love other people who are important to me, or not be attracted to other people who are sexy to me. Is it Bad Poly to frame it in terms of personal weakness? (A misleading question for me to ask: I don’t care if it is.)

  4. Sam

    Either I and everyone I know are also bad polyamorists, or you’re the one stereotyping people a whole damn lot in this article, and not offering much insight into what it is that actually makes you happy about these things. It’s not the poly you practice that leaves a weird taste, I fear, but the attitude with which you express it.

    1. 5.1

      I’m not stereotyping, I’m addressing the stereotypes about how poly must work that are perpetuated in the media. Sorry if I didn’t manage to convey that clearly enough, and sorry if I leave a weird taste. Explaining exactly why something done ethically and joyfully makes me happy is a bit beyond my capabilities, I’m afraid. When I’m happy about something like that, I generally just am without feeling the need or even being able to pick it apart to explain to someone.

      1. Sam

        Thanks Heina. I would expect you to be able to pick apart both the negative and the positive in all things, as a regular speaker and panelist, but perhaps I’m being over-defensive because I so want to like your argument (your point about poly PR being all about the positive and never making mistakes being an excellent one) but feel alienated by your delivery.

    2. 5.2

      If I got a lot out of this article and you didn’t, you just might not be the target audience here. Fortunately there’s an entire internet out there waiting for you to explore it.

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