Polyamory is Not a Sexual Orientation

**WARNING! DISCUSSION OF SEMANTICS AHEAD!**

Yesterday, in response to my challenge, Alex wrote a post about polyamory and orientation. Shaun followed up with his own post. I disagree with both of them, as they both make use of the term “orientation” to describe polyamory.

What is Polyamory?

First, what is this polyamory thing? Polyamory is notoriously difficult to define:

Webster’s Dictionary defines polyamory as “the state or practice of having more than one open romantic relationship at a time.”

Wikapedia defines polyamory as “the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.”

The Loving More Nonprofit website, defines polyamory as “romantic love with more than one person, honestly, ethically, and with the full knowledge and consent of all concerned.”

However, there is some agreement in the community about what polyamory is, and what polyamory isn’t. The spectrum looks something like this:

1. A couple (or more) who each engage in multiple loving relationships with the knowledge and consent of all involved
2. A couple who are each open and looking for multiple loving relationship (with knowledge & consent of both), but are currently only seeing each other
3. A couple who are each open to multiple loving relationships, but are not actively looking
4. A single person who intends to have only polyamorous relationships in the future
5. A couple who have no rule against multiple loving relationships, but only desire each other.
6. A couple who have sexual relationships with others, but not emotional relationships (i.e. swingers)
7. A couple, one or both of which are cheating
8. A couple who agree to be monogamous, although one or both have sexual desires outside of the relationship.

Obviously, there are a lot more types of relationships that may or may not fit into the poly framework. I’m just using these for illustrative purposes. The community mostly agrees that #1 and #2 are polyamorous, and #6, #7, and #8 are not. 3-5 are a gray area, although I favor an understanding of the term which encompasses at least #3 and #4. However, I (and the vast majority of the poly community) disfavor any definition that includes #7 or #8.

Is Polyamory a Sexual Orientation?

The term sexual orientation, on the other hand, until recently was used almost exclusively to mean the sex and/or gender to whom a person is attracted. It occasionally gets used to describe a person’s kinks or some other aspect of their sexuality, but by and large it’s used to describe the direction (i.e. orientation) of a person’s sexual desire.

There are a few problems with describing polyamory as a sexual orientation. The first of which is that polyamory is not sexual. Polyamory is about relationships, honesty, and intimacy. Look back at the definitions given by Loving More. Not a single one mentions sex. Calling polyamory a sexual orientation is a joke.

Secondly, polyamory is not an orientation. Polyamory is not a physical desire or a feeling. While there is not complete agreement on what polyamory is, there is clear agreement about it isn’t. And it isn’t just an attraction to multiple people. As Shaun pointed out, if you define polyamory as a feeling or an inclination, then half of the country is polyamorous, which is an absurd result. Almost everyone feels attraction for multiple people at the same time. This does not make them polyamorous.

A third problem with describing poly as a sexual orientation is that being poly is nothing like being GLB. Being GLB is about the type of person to whom you are sexually attracted. Being polyamorous is about the amount of people you love. Describing polyamory as a sexual orientation suggests a false equivalence between the groups, and seems like an attempt to coopt the sympathy that the GLBT community has built up.

Why Does it Matter?

In short, because words matter. The term “polyamory” is important. It’s the only word we have to identify ourselves. Despite it’s less than clear definition, people generally know what I mean when I say it, in a way that they wouldn’t if I described myself as “nonmonogamous” or “open.” Polyamory is the best word we have to describe our “lovestyle,” as Alex put it. If we allow it to mean something else, we risk losing one of our best rhetorical tools, and making it even more difficult to explain to people what this whole thing is all about.

What do you think? Is polyamory a sexual orientation? Does it matter?

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20 responses to “Polyamory is Not a Sexual Orientation

  1. After reading the last few posts, I think it would be really difficult to pinpoint one specific definition for polyamory. The most obvious way to ‘define’ it would be to literally break down the word itself, and you’ve said the same in that wording matters.

    I could see the possibility of labeling polyamory as an orientation for the purpose of making it more socially acceptable; however, I don’t think that that’s the angle anyone here is going for (although I know there is a desire for polyamory to be more socially acceptable!) Whether for religious reasons or social mores, one man and one woman is the ‘popular’ setup for relationships.

    What’s got me thinking now, though, is when exactly did relationships become defined as “one man and one woman, mutually exclusive to one another”?

  2. Perhaps you read my post wrong, because I can’t see where we disagree (you said you disagreed with my post, but your points didn’t seem to contradict my post. Perhaps there was some minor points where we disagree…).

    I agree with your analysis. But remember, I was making a distinction between the orientation towards being honest with what desires we do have and deciding to pursue multiple relationships as a result of that introspective truth.

    Thus, I don’t think polyamory, per se, is an orientation, although I think that the desire (both sexual and emotional) for multiple relationships is probably universal. Thus I think most people probably would want to be polyamorous if they were properly honest with themselves and willing to do the relevant work.

  3. @Ash –

    I could see the possibility of labeling polyamory as an orientation for the purpose of making it more socially acceptable

    I suspect that is most people’s motivation for labeling poly a sexual orientation. I strenuously resist that, as I don’t think bullshitting people is the best way to obtain acceptance (and even if it was, I wouldn’t want to).

    @Shaun – our disagreement is semantic. You used the word “orientation” often, which is one that I specifically avoid when discussing poly.

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  6. FYI – there’s a big discussion happening on Fetlife:
    https://fetlife.com/groups/107/group_posts/2660157

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  8. “I suspect that is most people’s motivation for labeling poly a sexual orientation. I strenuously resist that, as I don’t think bullshitting people is the best way to obtain acceptance (and even if it was, I wouldn’t want to).”

    Very good point!

  9. Jackson Warlock

    While I see the value in what you are writing here and do not disagree, I do take issue with the following statement:

    “There are a few problems with describing polyamory as a sexual orientation. The first of which is that polyamory is not sexual. Polyamory is about relationships, honesty, and intimacy. Look back at the definitions given by Loving More. Not a single one mentions sex. Calling polyamory a sexual orientation is a joke.”

    Homosexuality, bisexuality, and heterosexuality are also about relationships, honesty, and intimacy and not just about sex.

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  14. @9++. The statement “polyamory is not sexual” just seems wicked overbroad. If there were no sexual component, at all – including sexual potential – then we wouldn’t be talking about greater societal acceptance, or at least not in the same way. People freak out about polyamory exactly because it *is* sexual – even if not *exclusively* sexual. The sexual component is incredibly critical to the fact that polyamory is *not* well-accepted in society.

  15. Sorry! Meant to add: Or at least that’s my take. What’s yours?

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  19. I’m poly, and I completely view it as an orientation. Not a sexual orientation, but a sliding scale on the monogamy spectrum. My inclinations toward polyamory didn’t arise after I learned what it was all about or met people who introduced me to the lifestyle. I’ve always gravitated toward books, movies, songs, that took an unconventional view on relationships, and once I realized I wasn’t the only one who felt this way, all those previous feelings finally clicked.

    As for the notion of being “attracted to multiple people at the same time,” I think it’s more complex than that. Sure, half the country can be attracted to two separate individuals at the same time — but could they be attracted, without jealousy, to a polyamorous couple? Or be open to their lover dating someone else?

    I think some people are more inclined to jealousy in these kinds of situations, and would prefer a monogamous lifestyle, and others are “oriented” toward open relationships and compersion.

  20. There’s much to disagree with here but let me just start by pointing out that none of the assertions here are backed up by empirical evidence and are merely the opinions of the author (opinions which happen to contradict the feelings and experiences of many polyamorists I know).

    So this is an editorial, an opinion piece. Fine; nothing wrong with that! However, in my view, it’s not a very good one.

    The author uses highly emotional and dismissive language in reference to his/her imagined debate opponents (“calling polyamory a sexual orientation is a joke”), which strikes me as amateurish.

    Furthermore, he/she uses a strawman argument, claiming that orientation *must* be about what gender you are attracted to, not whether your sexual expression is a natural part of you, verses a personal choice.

    But the American Psychatric Association disagrees: “the concept of sexual orientation refers to more than sexual behavior. It includes feelings as well as identity.” Furthermore, nothing in the APA’s definition of orientation precludes polyamory as an orientation. Being simultaneously attracted to/in love with more than one persona at a time can certainly describe “a person’s romantic, emotional or sexual attraction to another person” (the APA’s definition of “sexual orientation”.) Representatives from the APA who served on a panel on the subject two years ago specifically stated there was no consensus at that time among experts whether or not polyamory is an orientation and searching has not turned up any evidence that an agreement has been reached since.

    Finally, and most egregious, the author is dishonest. He/she not only does not acknowledge that many, if not most, polyamorists today define their polyamory as “sexual” by definition, he/she actually makes assertions to the contrary. This, my friends, I assure you is simply not true. Most polyamorists I have heard from (numbering in the hundreds) consider a close loving relationship that is not sexual to be a friendship and sex to be an integral part of polyamory.

    I agree with the author on at least one point, though, that words are important. That’s why I’m extremely careful which causes to lend mine to. I wish the author would do the same.

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