Answers to Your Skepticon Polyamory Panel Questions

Last month, I did a panel on polyamory at Skepticon 9, moderated by fellow Orbiter Stephanie. My co-panelists are all people I like: fellow Orbiter Benny (who also did an amazing talk on the science of medical transition that weekend), Joshua Hyde, and Nola Olsen. It was fun to back on the main stage there.

There was a Q&A, but some questions weren’t addressed and some I feel I can answer better in writing. So here they are, in all their glory!

How much overlap do you see between more traditional “swingers” & poly groups?

The use of the word “traditional” here couldn’t be more apt. Generally speaking, swingers are very traditional in many ways that manifest across swingers’ groups: They tend to be populated by married people who present as monogamous to the world and have the utmost respect for the heterosexual couple as a unit. It’s not uncommon for swinger etiquette to include thanking a husband for “sharing” his wife with you and vice versa. Additionally, there is a “girls can play” mentality that isn’t at all matched by an acceptance for men who have sex with men; in some groups, bisexual men are barred from attending even if they do not approach other men sexually. Poly groups tend to be, at least in theory, a little less aggressively heterosexual, homophobic, and couple-centric — but not necessarily all that much so.

That said, there is overlap. Plenty of poly people have recreational sex in the way that swingers do, and plenty of swingers develop non-platonic relationships that are not limited to recreational sex. Some people certainly identify as both.

25 years ago, we just used the word “nonmonogamous” and “polyamorous” was just for people in multiple relationships. Now “poly” seems to have caught. What happened & why?

Do most poly folks use the word “poly” to mean any kind of open relationship? IOW: Would a “monogamish” relationship be “poly”?

“Non-monogamous” is clunkier and is a negation rather than an affirmation. People tend to like terms that are short and sweet as well as state what you are rather than what you aren’t. Plus, the abbreviation implies that you can be polysexual as well as polyamorous, or even just polysexual. It works.

Some people think of “poly” as an umbrella term that encompasses all forms of non-monogamy. Others don’t feel that way. As for “monogamish”, I’m glad it’s a term that resonates with people, but I do hate that it comes from Dan Savage, a non-monogamous dude who enjoys bashing poly-identified people.

I’m 53, she’s 22.
We love each other but no sex, because age gap.
are we poly?
She has lovers. I’m OK with that and support her.

If that is what you wish to call yourselves, go for it! There are asexual poly people who never have sex with anyone, so having sex is hardly a requirement. I am curious as to why the lack of sex between these two is explained as a result of an age gap, though. Plenty of people have sex with people multiple decades their senior or junior.

Do you have advice for poly people struggling with depression or the partners of those people?

Fellow Orbiter Miri writes about mental health and its intersections with poly and other issues at Everyday Feminism as well as at Brute Reason. Polyamory on Purpose ran a series on mental health issues and polyamory. See also: Polyamory and Depression,

How do you navigate “teaching” poly to uninformed partners?
Does that ever exhaust you?

How do you introduce polyamory to a new partner?

As far as I can tell, there are two ways these people could have meant “teaching to uninformed partners”/”introduce to a new partner”: convincing a monogamous person to go poly, or helping a new-to-it person to navigate polyamory. Of course, there is some overlap between the two. I am emphasizing the difference because of my own personal feelings on the matter, which have changed over the years. Once upon a time, I was willing to date people who were open to poly but not quite sold on it. Now, I refuse to do so. In order to date me, someone has to be solidly poly-identified. I no longer have the patience for the angst or the strength to deal with the heartbreak. Inexperienced is fine depending on the person, but reticence is a no-go.

The reason is that I have been burned several times over by men who said they were wholeheartedly open to being poly with me only to find out later that they were going about it in a self-victimizing way. They basically said they were openly poly so that they could be with me, but would’ve rather been monogamous or don’t-ask-don’t-tell with me. Eventually, their resentment and jealousy and insecurity bubbled out and caused problems. No thanks. Open non-monogamy is my non-negotiable price of admission. I honestly am befuddled that anyone would sacrifice their own needs and deceive someone else to that extent (I’m not that much of a prize to boot!), but it is a real thing that has happened to me and that I would rather not go through it ever again.

Have you ever ran into any trouble when you tell people you’re poly?

Yes. All the time.

Generally speaking, people are not comfortable with questioning concepts that they take for granted. It isn’t dissimilar to disclosing that you are an atheist in this theist-majority world: People don’t realize it’s a viable option for real people living out in the world.

Specifically speaking:

  • I was shouted at and harassed for years by a confrontational member of my college social circle because he decided that my being poly meant that I was exactly like his no-good cheating daddy (and, therefore, my then-boyfriend was cast in the role of this bully’s long-suffering mother). That I am a feminist bothered him, too.
  • At a house party I once threw, a man refused to believe that my now-spouse was OK with me hooking up with him. Instead of hooking up, he spent hours discussing and debating the philosophy of non-monogamy with my partner. More absurdly, men who knew I was in a relationship were happy to sleep with me… until they found out that it was poly and not cheating. Somehow, to them, poly was worse!
  • Disclosing that I’m poly, directly or indirectly, often leads to people dumping all their hang-ups and insecurities on me and saying things to which I have no good or polite response. If I respond with anything but agreement or affirmation, I’m perceived to be one of those “preachy” poly people. This besieged-upon mentality among the monogamous exists in spite of the fact that the staggering majority of people in the world identify as monogamous.

What safer sex practices do you use to reduce risk?

What about the possibility of STD’s?

Everyone, monogamous or poly, has their own idea as to what constitutes a level of acceptable risk when it comes to STIs. In my view, people perceived STIs as somehow more unclean and therefore worse than other health risks because of slut-shaming and sex-hating attitudes. Most people don’t even know that they have one of the more common STIs, HSV 1 or 2, because unless they get an outbreak, they’re not getting tested.

In practice, this is how it shakes out in my life:

  • Non-hormonal IUD for me
  • Condoms for penile-vaginal contact with anyone but my spouse
  • Condoms for any penile-anal contact with anyone but spouse
  • Condoms for any of my toys when used on anyone but myself, especially for to anally or vaginally penetration
  • Gloves for any manual-anal contact (this has more to do with hygiene and comfort than STI risk)
  • Gloves for manual-vaginal contact in certain contexts
  • Avoiding oral-oral or oral-genital contact with anyone with an active outbreak of HSV

In the limited amount of empirical data we do have on the matter, poly people are better on the matter of STIs than monogamous people. Monogamy is not a magical vaccine against STIs.

How do you think responsibility should be delegated for unintended children?

Can we stop acting like this sort of thing is only applicable to poly people, already? Monogamous people have “unintended children” — as in unwanted pregnancies — too. There aren’t enough poly people in the whole goddamn world to account for the number of unintended pregnancies in the United States alone. Sometimes, those children are the result of cheating. People deal with it as is appropriate to their personal situation and applicable laws. As an adamantly pro-choice person, I will say that the wishes of the person who got pregnant override anyone else’s.

Do you believe the legal institution of marriage should be inclusive of polyamory? (i.e. benefits)

What have you had to do to protect yourself legally in your poly relationship? What changes to the law would you suggest to make your life easier as a poly?

I’m personally a marriage abolitionist. I think the fact that we impose a one-size-fits-all model on people in order for them to get any benefits for, rights over, and protections from each other is complete bullshit. Any number of people should have the right to better customize what their legal contract with each other looks like. Monogamous (and, until very very recently, heterosexual) marriage carries with it a kind of societal and legal respect that I don’t care for in the slightest.

Personally, I haven’t had to do anything other than marry my spouse, and that has less to do with being poly and everything to do with the dismal state of the United States safety net.

And please, don’t say “a poly”. That’s just awkward. Are you “a monogamous”? Didn’t think so.

Coming from a mono relationship, how do you deal with or calm feelings of jealousy with a partner?

The difference between poly and monogamy is that when you’re monogamous, you’re generally expected to stop doing whatever is causing jealousy in a partner. When you’re poly, that’s usually not viable, so the person who is feeling jealous is the one who has to take action, rather than the person seen as causing the jealousy. In a poly context, I think of jealousy as a package to examine rather than an individual emotion to understand at face value.

You take this package we call jealousy and figure out what caused it and why. From there, you can determine whether you can work on it, accept it, remove yourself from the situation that caused it, or whatever combination works for that particular instance or type of jealousy.

More Than Two is a generally great relationship and poly resource; its section on jealousy is no exception.

I was in a poly relationship before, but have had trouble finding poly relationship since. What are ways to find people in really conservative areas?

I think it’s easier to find poly groups and people in more conservative areas than in more perceived-as-progressive areas. In areas like mine, i.e. the latter type, people have less of a reason to organize. Oppression, perceived or real, is a wonderful force for cohesion.

If “conservative” is code for “rural”, well, that sucks. The Internet is helpful but there are no guarantees.

What was your toughest relationship moment? How did you get past it?

Cheating on my first partner as a coward’s way out of the relationship. I felt horrible and confessed it right away. He broke up with me and I’ve not been monogamous since.

Any polyamory in the senior community?

There sure is. Some of it is de facto because women tend to outlive men and most people are heterosexual, but there are people who are older and poly.

Coparenting problems. What do if you have kids tell teachers, doctors… that kind of stuff?

I find the perception that kids are mindless blabbers to be bizarre at best. As a kid, I certainly knew what I should and shouldn’t say about my home life around people outside my community and my family. I don’t see this as any different. Talk to your kids like they are people.

I would think there would be some basic trust issues which could under-mind a relationship.

(a) That’s not a question, and (b) trust issues are hardly the sole provenance of the poly. You’re kidding yourself if you think that monogamous people don’t have trust issues in their relationships. If by this question you mean that you wouldn’t feel like you could trust your partner if you were in a poly relationship with them, then please don’t ever be poly, as it’s a bad fit for you.

How do you and/or would you go about getting to know your partner’s new partner, and being comfortable with them?

Think of it this way: How do you meet and get comfortable with the partner of a sibling, friend, coworker, etc.? You generally arrange a meeting on neutral grounds that is convenient for all involved. If you don’t like them for reasons that aren’t potentially and legitimately harmful to the person you care about, you tolerate them without getting too close to them. If you do get along, then you make friends with them.

When it comes to a metamour (a partner of your partner), then, you do whatever you’d do when you meet someone you don’t know who is dear to someone you love. You don’t have to be instant (or ever) besties with your metamour by any means, but you should make a good-faith effort to have a decent human connection with them. Even if you don’t like them for reasons that aren’t related to legitimate harm to your shared partner, you should keep it at least congenial and civil.

Do you know roughly what are the numbers of poly’s by age?

There’s no hard data but I’d say it is fairly evenly distributed, from what I’ve seen. In my experience, most organized poly groups tend to skew older in age, while younger polys tend to meet more informally.

If you met someone who is Poly but their spouse is not & does not approve &/or have children, how do you go forward?

If their spouse doesn’t approve, you don’t go forward at all, since that’s cheating and not poly. If their spouse approves, I don’t see why children would be a problem unless they want you to co-parent and you don’t, or you want to co-parent and they would rather you not, or some other misalignment in terms of expectations of your relationship with their offspring.

Are all your relationships the same or do you have
one – physical
one – intellectual
one – maybe both
Do you search for different types?

One of the real benefits of poly for me has been the ability to enjoy individuals as they are rather than try to get a single partner to be into everything I am currently and ever will be interested in. While I don’t actively categorize partners into “physical”, “intellectual”, or “both”, nor do I deliberately search for one type of relationship or other, I definitely get different things from different people I’m with. It’s awesome.

How do you combat the stigma of selfishness?

I don’t see how it’s selfish for me to not keep my awesome partners all to myself, or to ensure that the burden of dealing with me is not weighing down only a single person (;

In all seriousness, people are quick to label any choices they don’t like as “selfish”, especially if those choices are outside the mainstream. That judgment is usually not based on anything approximating a rational assessment of those choices. Poke their assumption a little bit and watch it unravel. It’s fun.

Answers to Your Skepticon Polyamory Panel Questions

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