Polyamory is relatively under-researched, which is understandable as it is a pretty rare relationship style. Some may even go so far as to say that polyamory is invisible in our society. This makes sense as, often, when polyamory is discussed or exposed, moral judgment will describe polyamory as somehow beneath monogamy, or ethically deficient. Such conclusions are vaguely reminiscent of 1950s attitudes towards gay and lesbian relationships, highlighting the tentative socially constructed norms that strictly define sexual and romantic relationships.
What many people struggle to understand are the open and transparent ideals that are paramount to engaging in polyamory. As many of us are culturally indoctrinated to create ease within our relationships, the type of honesty required in polyamorous relationships is often misunderstood. Perhaps only those who have bravely ventured into poly relationships can comprehend the level of emotional and psychological exposure and sharing that it accompanies. As I have often said, polyamory is not for the faint of heart. That being said, sometimes even those who do identify as poly are unclear around the boundaries of honest communication and transparency when it comes to their relationships.
Scientifically, the most recent study, by Rubin et al., conducted in the USA, considered the epidemiology of those in consensually non-monogamous (CNM) relationships, defined as “relationships in which all involved partners have openly agreed to sexual/and or romantic encounters with other individuals” (2014, p. 3). They found that up to 5% of their sample group participated in CNM relationships, with the majority being white, heterosexual men. The authors argue that this could be due to evolutionary traits in men, which demand that they ‘spread their seed.’ However, women may be less inclined to admit to alternative relationship styles, in an attempt to avoid cultural stigmatisation.
Interviews with those who identify as polyamorous show interesting results, namely that there are two ways in which people identify as poly (Barker, 2005). One perspective from respondents is that it is natural for them to engage in more than one relationship at a time; while the other is that polyamory requires practice and consciousness to achieve. Those who fall under the latter category tended to have more autonomy, whilst viewing polyamory as something to taken seriously and enacted responsibly. No matter how one justifies their choice, it is clear from the interviews that many feel disrespected for choosing a poly relationship style, often tending to keep their choices hidden from larger society.
My own observations of various polyamorous communities (both online and in person) have found that there is a notion that many people enter into polyamory as a manner of justifying promiscuity. Often, even those in poly circles may judge others as looking for an “easy lay” in relation to their involvement within poly communities. Cyber groups are carefully monitored to weed out undesirables, potentially creating an atmosphere of exclusivity. It is no easy task ensuring that online community endeavours remain ethical and clear in their intent, particularly with the anonymity that the internet provides. Ensuring that those who participate in any groups involving sex and sexuality, particularly those that may defy social constructions of normality, have a genuine interest maintaining and preserving the identity of the group seems vital. After all, creating viable and valid perceptions of sexual orientations such as polyamory is important for both social acceptance and human rights recognition.
References: Barker, M. (2005). This is my partner and this is my…partner’s partner: Constructing a polyamorous identity in a monogamous world. Journal of Constructivist Psychology ,18(1). Rubin, J. D., Moors, A. C., Matsick, J. L., Ziegler, A., & Conley, T. D. (2014). On the margins: Considering diversity among consensually non-monogamous relationships. Journal für Psychologie, 22(1).