Is Polyamory An Orientation?

Article by Cathy Reisenwitz /
Sex and the State /
June 24, 2013 /
Click here to view original /

Polyamory has been in the news lately, with one Slate writer assuring readers it’s fine for the children and should be legally recognized. Then on Thursday my good friend, and Reason writer Matthew Feeney (read him!) pointed me to a CNN op-ed with the combative headline: Face it: Monogamy is unnatural. All this ties into one question, which I received after putting a call out on Facebook for questions about polyamory: Is polyamory an orientation?

The question piqued my interest. And as I pondered it, I began to compare non-monogamy with gender-preference orientations (gay, straight and bisexual). After much consideration, I believe “non-monogamous” is an orientation, based mostly on three of its similarities with gender-preference orientations. Like gender-preference orientations, non-monogamy 1. has biological bases, 2. exists on a sliding scale and 3. faces some of the same barriers to widespread acceptance. All this leads me to the conclusion that the more comfortable we can get with people living out their own variations on strict monogamy the happier, healthier and more honest we’ll all be.

Why Don’t You Just Slide

The Kinsey scale for gender-preference orientations is the first thing I considered when I tried to determine whether polyamory is an orientation.

I don’t think most people are entirely gay or straight. For instance, I refer to myself as “heteroflexible” because if straight is only wanting sex with the opposite sex and bi is equally enamored with both sexes, I think my inclinations and experiences seem to exist somewhere between the two. But I think most people who would identify as bisexual do have a preference for one gender, either stated or expressed. Although, that preference may evolve over time, or switch back and forth.

So working with that understanding of orientation, I think that most people also operate on a sliding scale of preference for monogamy. I think part of the point of Face it: Monogamy is unnatural is that while most people state a preference for monogamy, straight up, no sliding scale, their expressed preference is revealed in infidelity’s prevalence and variability. The fact that many people don’t cheat, while some just can’t seem to stop, seems to indicate that people have varying levels of preference for monogamy.

Biological Factors at Play

In addition, I also believe, as I think most people now do (including former pray-the-gay-away program Exodus International!), that gender- preference-based sexual orientation has biological bases over which we have limited understanding and limited control. I think this also holds true for monogamy. For instance, there are studies linking levels of men’s testosterone with their number of sexual partners and sexual fidelity. (If you like your men faithful, stay away from a strong jaw.)

And the idea for both a biological basis for monogamy, as well as its existence on a sliding scale, seems to be somewhat backed up by neuroscience:

Studies of prairie voles helped scientists understand that from a chemical and biological standpoint, sexual monogamy depends not just on particular hormones that are released in the brain, but on receptors for these hormones.

Among humans, here’s the rub: we have the chemicals and the receptors, but it varies from person to person how much we have. Based on brain wiring alone, inclination toward fidelity can vary dramatically from one individual to another.

At this point, I want to make a distinction between the action of infidelity and the lifestyle of non-monogamy. It’s counterproductive to confuse the two. Non-monogamy is a conscious, stated lifestyle choice. I consider it an umbrella term, under which polyamory, swinging, and Dan Savage’s monogamish lifestyle fall. Whereas practicing non-monogamy requires being honest with your partners (even if you’re not “out” to others) about your sexual practices, infidelity is when you mislead by claiming you’re monogamous when you really aren’t.

Feminist and lecturer Lauren Rosewarne put it well for The Conversation:

Polyamory, open marriages, hall passes and swinging only work when everyone agrees to the ground rules. When everyone consents without coercion. When nobody feels betrayed. When nobody wants more than what’s offered.

The Resistance to Change

So how does all this work out practically? Well, let’s look at homophobia. In the not-too-distant past, people did not widely understand gender-preference to be a natural, value-neutral sexual orientation. When someone tells you your preference is a mental illness, or that they reject people who express that preference, you live in hiding and lie to fit in.

I see non-monogamy similarly. I think a lot of infidelity (though certainly not all) results from people being “in the closet” so to speak, about their preference for monogamy. They have a non-monogamous orientation in a monogamous world. Like the LGBT community (though to a lesser extent by far), there is backlash against “coming out” as non-monogamous. And the charges are eerily similar: “it’s a choice,” “it’s not healthy,” “it’s bad for the kids,” “it spreads disease,” and “it’s not natural.”

I believe that seeing a preference for non-monogamy as an orientation like gay, straight or bi will help foster an accepting attitude. I think this is valuable, but not because I have any desire to encourage non-monogamy. After all, these studies and theories don’t change the value neutrality of monogamy. Just like I don’t put value on gay or straight, I don’t see monogamy as good or bad. I don’t care whether other people are huge sluts or do the whole “one man, one woman, one lifetime” thing. I’ll go further to say that even though non-monogamy works better for me, I dislike hearing judgement or combativeness from the polyamory community towards monogamy or its practitioners.

I do, however, assign value to honesty. I think it’s a good thing to be real with yourself and your partner(s).

I really can’t overstress the importance of honesty to me personally. I understand not everyone values it to the degree I do. But as I’ve discussed before, I’m not really super capable in the deception department. In addition, my social ineptitude extends to not being able to read people very well, making discerning lies hard. And for some reason I find being misled extremely painful. I feel stupid for not being able to tell, and I feel rejected. I understand rationally that lying to me says more about the liar than me. But even without the bad feels, life is too short in my opinion to waste time “connecting” with people who can’t be real with themselves or me.

But beside my own inability to lie or discern a lie, I find living in the truth far more interesting. I believe the truth is stranger than fiction. People are really freaking weird, and I don’t want to be denied the opportunity to connect with them over their weirdness, and learn from their vastly different experiences, because being honest will have too many negative consequences for them.

So I’m invested in widespread acceptance of non-monogamy not just because I’m non-monogamous and I like life on the easy setting. I suffer very little from stigma. I’m invested because non-monogamy does more than just require honesty. Non-monogamy is the only way for people who have a strong preference for it to live honestly. A world with less hate and fear and resistance is a more honest, connected, interesting world. And it’s the kind of world I want to live in.