Sometimes, in the course of human events, one needs to go back and clarify one's definitions. For the term and concept "polyamory," now seems like just such a time: Sex at Dawn has brought the idea of humans as a non-monogamous species into the mainstream, Canada's case against polygamy has brought polyamorous families to the forefront, and people who are interested in multiple intimate emotional entanglements are still struggling to differentiate themselves from swingers.
But polyamory can mean so many things to so many people that some people are struggling to make sure the definition doesn't become too broad. The Polyamory Paradigm blog, for instance, finds that poly-tantra activist Janet Kira Lessin's descriptions of six-way orgies at the Poly Living Conference seem more swinger-like than poly-like. Alan at Polyamory in the News has expressed concerns that with the gradual mainstreaming of polyamory, people will try it in uninformed and dishonest ways and make the lifestyle look naive and impossible to those being exposed to it for the first time. Even Deborah Anapol, pioneer of polyamory in the '80s and author of the original Love Without Limits, allows for the labeling of open or potentially open marriages as "new monogamy."
There's an expression in pagan communities that you can ask twelve people what Wicca is, and you'll get thirteen different answers. The same seems to hold true for polyamory, and some people can get pretty defensive about their definitions. This isn't that surprising, as there are so many different styles of polyamory, nearly as many as there are individuals practicing it.
But what, exactly, do we get out of deciding that, say, a polyfidelitous marriage between three people is polyamory, but a couple who sometimes hook up with a third person together is not? Does it become poly when it's the same third person every time, even if it only happens every six months? When Lessin speaks of having an immediate soul connection with a couple she and her husband have just met, is the sex they have just hours later swinging and not poly, and if so, when does it switch over?
To my mind, the only real rules for calling something polyamory is that the sexual and relational interactions be 1) consensual, 2) above-board, and 3) respectful. The main definition for polyamory, though, is contained in the coined word: "many loves," not just many sexual partners.
This definition, however, has led to what looks suspiciously like sex-negativity. Those who are interested in expanding their definition and purview of loving relationships have become so concerned about stigma that they insist, over and over, the polyamory isn't about sex, even though sexual interaction is one of the main things that distinguishes polyamory from just having a lot of close, cuddly friends. It is important to distinguish sex from love, but it is also important to recognize that love may come in many forms - including a brief, beautiful interaction between people who have just met. Some such interactions may be fleeting. Others may result in life-long relationships. Are we to judge what is and is not polyamory by how long it takes for people to fall into bed together - or worse, by how long they sit around negotiating about it?
It is equally important to recognize that even when sex is present without love, that it's okay. Sex is a powerful human need, it's good and healthy for us, and when practiced in a risk-aware, consensual, and honest way, makes us happier, less stressed, and more loving toward others. Sexual repression - especially among people who are supposed to be open-minded about relationships - has not done our world a lot of good. As Alan Moore said, "Sexually progressive cultures gave us literature, philosophy, civilization and the rest, while sexually restrictive cultures gave us the Dark Ages and the Holocaust." It's an extreme example, but one I think we can learn from when talking about these issues. While encouraging responsibility, safer sex, and intimacy among poly people is terribly important, it would be a sad world indeed if we did not also encourage lust, adventure, and (dare I say) the pursuit of happiness. While sex and love are not the same thing, it is worth noting that love relationships often begin with sexual attraction.
With this in mind, perhaps we can agree on a basic definition of polyamory, without judging others for not doing it "our way." I propose the following: Polyamory is a style of relating romantically that involves openness to emotional and sexual attachments to more than one person, with the knowledge and consent of all involved.
The key word here is "openness." A swinging couple who is not open to emotional attachments but only to sexual dalliances - I agree, not poly. A couple who allow each other to have flings when they're out of town on business? Not poly. But I think that anyone who is open to the idea that a dalliance may develop into an intimate emotional relationship which can be consented to by a previously existing partner can be called polyamorous, even if they don't all want to raise kids together or live in an intentional community and grow their own food.
In the course of opening the definition, of course, there are going to be people who take advantage of it. Jerks abound who will say that they are "polyamorous" when what they mean is that they're cheating on their spouse, who isn't aware of being in an open relationship. Other idiots say they are polyamorous in order to avoid committing to anyone, claiming that they "love everybody" and switching who their "primary partner" is the way they change their pants.
But making polyamory into an exclusive club whose members have to pass some kind of love test isn't helpful to anyone.
As always: your comments are welcome.