Ugly on the Surface: The Online Polyamory Community vs. Reality

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Photo by  darkday / CC BY 2.0

The other day, I read a hilariously off the rails opinion piece criticizing the polyamory community for being too inclusive and engaging in identity politics, touting these things as harbingers of doom for polyamory. While I could certainly spend an entire entry ripping apart the notion that it’s a bad thing that there’s too many different people bringing their own ideals of how to be polyamorous and that marginalized groups are trying to get their two cents in is a problem, I can’t remember where I read the article and I’m not going to try to pick it apart from memory.

Instead, I’m going to write about a thought that occurred to me while I was reading the article. That the online polyamory community is not an accurate reflection of what the polyamory community is actually like. It feels like that should be stating the obvious, but there are a few key things that some people seem to miss about being a part of the online polyamory community.

  1. People are much more apt to aggressively soap box for their ideologies online.
  2. Controversial posts and arguments tend to generate a much larger number of comments. Positive posts rarely elicit a great deal of commenting back and forth.
  3. There are people for whom shit stirring online is a hobby.
  4. Facebook’s algorithms are inclined to keep shoving heavily commented on posts into your face via your feed so that you’ll see the same argument a dozen times while a dozen more positive posts will slip right by unseen.
  5. People arguing isn’t always a bad thing. Exchanging ideas is often a good thing, even when people can get a little overly passionate about advocating their point of view or are closed to other people’s points of view. Even when two stubborn assholes are going at it with no chance of either of them actually listening to the other, there’s an audience who that can possibly absorb both sides of the argument more objectively.

No, the polyamory community isn’t ever going to see eye to eye with itself over some things. What group that large does? I’m pretty sure there’s at least three major warring factions among Feminists and they’re still a larger and more powerful cultural force than polyamory can hope to be anytime soon, because ultimately for all the disagreements their goals overlap enough that they can generally come together for the important things. They’re not going away.

The polyamory community is the same. Some relationship anarchists might not be terribly supportive of the hierarchical polyamorists’ style of relationship on a philosophical level, but that won’t stop them from standing up for a FMF triad who is fighting against moralizing authorities trying to take their children over their relationship dynamic. We may bicker, but in the end we’re still a community and we still look out for each other where it counts, even when we can be judgmental pricks about how much more right our relationship paradigm is than someone else’s.

Most importantly, I can’t think of a single time in the two decades I’ve been proactively a part of any meat world polyamory community that I’ve been witness to any but the most civil of disagreements about ethical non-monogamy. I’ve yet to see people start viciously  ripping into a couple that talk about how they’re looking for a third to complete them. Online, I see so many newcomers to polyamory torn to shreds by people reacting with aggressive hostility towards their naivety, while any face to face gathering of polyamorous people I’ve been a part of has always been friendly and welcoming to people taking their first steps out of the monogamy box.

To have the best experience in the online polyamory community, I think it’s useful to keep the following in mind.

1. Take negative feedback with a grain of salt.

It’s good to consider constructive criticism, even if we ultimately don’t agree with it, but if someone’s riding on a high horse and being an asshole there’s not much point in even paying attention to them, much less getting emotionally invested in an argument with them.  Certainly don’t let such people dominate your experience within the community, because as long as you’re not an asshole yourself you can find plenty of non-asshole polyamorous people to engage in much more pleasant and constructive ways.

2. Be careful about how you give negative feedback.

I’m not going to tell you to never be critical of other people’s ideals, but do avoid being a dick about. It’s not like anyone is going to attribute much value to your opinion if you piss them off while expressing it. If you’re going to say something negative, it’s good to consider whether you’d phrase it in the same way if you were face to face with someone. If not, then you’re probably being an asshole. This measure of course only works if you’re not an asshole in real life too, instead of one of the many people who feel more confident behind a keyboard while simultaneously gaining a level of detachment from the idea that they’re talking to actual people that combines into a particular kind of callousness. It can be hard to maintain empathy for people you’re interacting with through a screen, but for civility’s sake try.

3. Don’t project  your own baggage onto someone else. Something you see a lot of in polyamory discussion groups is people who had an experience with an abusive relationship of a certain sort and they characterize all relationships of that sort as abusive rather than considering that what made the relationship abusive was the people they were involved with and not the style of the relationship.

There’s no such thing as a relationship style immune to potential abuse with the wrong partner, nor are there a lot of consensual relationship styles that don’t have the potential to be healthy and fulfilling with the right partners. So acting as though you can judge people solely by the kind of relationship they’re in or seeking is pretty shitty.

4. Look for well moderated groups. When left to their own devices, polyamory groups tend to be absolutely overrun with posts that are essentially personal ads. One of the most common frustrations in polyamory is finding suitable partners so without anything to rein that in, polyamory groups are among the thirstiest places on the internet. Which of course means that the other half of the posts become about people complaining about all those posts.  If you want to have meaningful conversations with other ethical non-monogamists, it’s best to find groups that have rules in place to prevent personal ads and admins that enforce those rules.

Anyway…

To get back to my original point, despite how ugly the online polyamory community can look on the surface, the polyamory community as a whole is doing just fine. While we can certainly stand to improve, we are thriving and expanding like crazy. Of course there are going to be some growing pains. That’s to be expected. However, I have seen no evidence that there’s anything to be worried about. The occasional online flame war isn’t going to burn the polyamory community to the ground anymore than any other community has been brought to its knees because its members argue online a lot. Sci-fi fandom? Sports enthusiasts? I’m pretty sure if the internet had been around in the 18th century, people would be flaming each other over Mozart.

Hell, there are probably people right now flaming each other over Mozart. Music fans are among the worst for shit talking each others tastes.  Yet music lives on and so will polyamory.

Winter Arcane’s Frolicon 2017 Panels

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I’ve mentioned before that I’ll be making my debut as a presenter on three polyamory related panels at Frolicon 2017. With the recent release of the schedule for the Think Track, I now know when those classes are.

Introduction to Polyamory
Thursday (4/14) / 4:00 PM-5:15 PM / Room GA3

Polyamory is the philosophy of being open to having multiple romantic relationships simultaneously and its popularity is growing rapidly. This class is for all those who are taking their first steps into the world of love without traditional limitations. Learn some of the pros and cons of letting go of romantic and sexual exclusivity in relationships, some of the red flags that give warning that trouble lies ahead, and some of the strategies that can help avoid common pitfalls along the way.

The Jargon of Polyamory
Thursday (4/14) / 7:00 PM-8:15 PM / Room GA 9

Are you and your partner unicorn hunters? Do you feel compersion when you see your partner kiss someone else? Are you friends with your metamour? Well, if you’re new to polyamory and the community that has formed around it you may not even know what the hell those questions are asking. This class is here to help get you acquainted with the unusual words found all over polyamory forums and articles.

From Monogamish to Relationship Anarchy: The Many Flavors of Ethical Non-monogamy
Friday (4/15) / 10:00 AM-11:15 AM / Room GA 9

For most people who practice Ethical Non-Monogamy, Polyamory is an adequate umbrella under which to come together as a community. However, there are many styles of Ethical Non-Monogamy out there. In this class we’ll discuss the various labels floating around the Polyamory community (as well as some types of Ethical Non-Monogamy that exist outside of the Polyamory umbrella) and their varied interpretations.

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Songs of Ethical Non-Monogamy, Part 1

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Monogamists have an endless supply of one true love songs to reflect their approach to relationships. Likewise, there are countless odes to no-strings sexual relationships. You can find whole albums dedicated exclusively to either of them. Polyamorists and people who practice similar forms of Ethical Non-Monogamy, however, have a much more limited pool of popular music to relate to.

While there are other lists out there (and I’m not going to pretend I didn’t reference them while making this one), they’re often loaded with songs that are really just about cheating or simply loveless fucking around. For example, one list contains The Offspring’s “Self-Esteem” which is a song about a guy whose girlfriend is constantly cheating on him and is miserable about it but he doesn’t have the spine to break up with her. That, to me, is not a song about any flavor of Ethical Non-Monogamy.

So I decided to make my own list, personally curating it to meet the a specific criteria of being about someone having multiple lovers in an honest manner and having an ongoing romantic relationship with at least one of those lovers to distinguish it from simply being about no strings sex. There are those who practice no strings Ethical Non-Monogamy, forming no ongoing relationships, but there are too many songs about people having multiple casual sex partners. There are artists who build their entire career around being sexual liberated and not being tied down to anyone, so I don’t think people practicing that form of Ethical Non-Monogamy are hurting for songs to relate to.

I also only included songs I could find on YouTube videos to link to so people can actually listen to the songs. That is the main reason this list has been taking so long to compile and I’m only posting half the list right now. I find it incredibly difficult to listen to music without getting lost in music. For each song on this list, I probably spent 15-20 minutes listening to that song, reading its lyrics, and writing its entry and another 40-60 minutes going down YouTube’s rabbit hole of suggested videos. There were also a lot of songs I did all that with then ended up not including because they didn’t meet the criteria.

Expect the second half of the list next month, as well as a page merging them as a singular reference.  For now, I hope you enjoy what I’ve got so far. As time consuming as making this list was, it was also a lot of fun.

1, 2. 3 (You, Her, and Me)” by Rick James

This fun Rick James groove portrays an all too common entry point into Ethical Non-Monogamy…a dude getting busted cheating and turning it into a pitch for a triad. It may be a bit light on the ethical part of ethical non-monogamy, the singer at least sounds like he’s laying it all on the table, now that he’s caught, that he loves both women (“My love for you is so strong, my love for her is unwrong!”) and wants to go on openly loving them both (“We could be together, the three of us forever!”). It’s kind of hard to root for the guy even if we stay within the scene painted by the song and don’t apply what we know about Rick James himself to it, but it’s hard to deny that there are people in the world of ethical non-monogamy who entered it as refugees of unethical non-monogamy.

3” by Britney Spears

Reading the comment section of the official YouTube video of this song is a real treat if you love watching people’s innocence destroyed by the realization that Britney Spears released a chart topping pop song about group sex (mostly threesomes, though she does up the ante to a foursome in one line). Also, unlike Rick James above, she’s not dwelling on love or bringing up commitment…she’s all about making group sex sound like awesome fun (“merrier the more,

triple fun that way, twister on the floor, what do you say”). She seems extremely up front about it, though, not needing to get busted before putting it on the table that she’s super down for a threesome or maybe even moresome. She even very sweetly assures her partner that it’s cool if they’re not interested in more than one on one (“what we do is innocent, just for fun and nothin’ meant, if you don’t like the company, let’s just do it you and me”). That kind of forthrightness is tops in my book.

All My Lovers” by Black Tape for a Blue Girl

This ambient sounding track, by a dark wave group I’ll confess I’d never heard before I started researching this list, is sung from the point of view of a woman describing sexual intimacy with one lover (“he touches my hair, touches my breast, I feel him inside me”) while reassuring another (“and I don’t love you less, because of them, I don’t need you less, when I feel his caress”). She seems to luxuriate in the wonderfulness of being free to be open in such a way (“My lovers help me brush away deception from my path, back to a place where thoughts are pure, nothing to hide”).

Cactus Tree” by Joni Mitchell

This lovely folk ballad from the 60’s portrays a woman who loves and is loved by multiple men (“there’s a lady, in the city, and she thinks she loves them all.”) but is very much attached to her freedom and turns away from becoming enmeshed (“Now she rallies her defenses, for she fears that one will ask her for eternity, and she’s so busy being free”). It’s not clear that the men know about each other, but it seems obvious enough that she’s not made any commitments to any of them either.

Culture Shock” by Olivia Newton John

This was one of the more surprising songs I dug up in my research. It’s a fairly bland song even by contemporary pop standards, but Olivia Newton John was not someone I expected to have such a blatantly pro-ethical non-monogamy song in 1985. It’s a classic polyamory scenario of a woman confessing to her long term partner that she’s fallen in love with another man and doesn’t want to give either of them up (“You gotta know, I didn’t plan it, it was the last thing on my mind/How can you love two people at the same time? Ooh ooh/Now I don’t wanna lose you, but I can’t give him up”). She doesn’t really beat around the bush either, getting straight to making a case for the end she desires (“I know it’s unconventional, radical but practical/Why can’t the three of us live together?”).

Family” by Gaia Consort

This bouncy folk rock song is notable for being the theme song for “Family”, an episodic web series about polyamory. Unsurprisingly given the title, it reflects a more family-oriented style of Ethical Non-Monogamy than most of this list (“All the outs are in free, the babies are sleeping/Time enough for love when everybody puts a hand in”).

The French Song” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts

This rock song barely made the cut, as the English lyrics could be construed as an invitation to cheat, but the French lyrics are more explicit that what the singer is angling for is a threesome (“J’aime faire l’amour sur tout a trois” translates to “I love to make love, especially with three”). Apparently Joan wanted to make a song about threesomes but didn’t want to offend anyone so she had her French speaking guitar tech right the chorus in French. It almost gets cut off by the list by the viewpoint character not having an ongoing relationship with the person she’s trying to sell on the threesome, but it sounds like the person she’s talking to is part of an established couple so I’m going to count it.
Happy Guy” by Devo

This fairly standard Devo track tells of a man in love with two different women (“He was twice in love/with two very different girls”) and it working out pretty well for him (“Knowing life was short/He told them both the truth/But they already knew/Now he’s a happy guy”). At least for a while. Later in the song it talks about a less joyous scenario (“Let me tell you about a man/A tragic case/Love kicked in his face/He shriveled up and died/From a broken heart”) and it could be the same guy, indicating that his happy trio didn’t work out in the end, but it clearly did for a while so I’m counting it. Also, the song has a pretty uplifting ending (“Reincarnated as a work of art/He’s got a brand new start/Hey!/Now he’s a happy guy”).

Let’s Invite Them Over” by George Jones and Melba Montgomery

A sad country duet about a couple who are in love with their friends instead of each other. Though they’ve clearly had their friends over before, they clearly feel guilty about it (“We’ve talked it over and over/And we know it’s not right”) but also really want to do it again (“Yes we stay away for a while/But we know in the end/We’ll invite them over again”). It sounds like the pieces are there for a potentially happy situation if they could get over their shame (to be fair, the song was released in 1963, so they could be forgiven for feeling uncomfortable breaking the norm of society).

Light of Some Kind” by Ani DiFranco

Another song that sounds like a pretty realistic situation. A woman unfaithful to her boyfriend is uncomfortable with deception (“’cause we both know what i’ve been doing/i’ve been intentionally bad at lying”), coming clean that she’s fallen for another woman (“she came up to me with the sweetest face/and she was holding a light of some kind”). She doesn’t want this situation to be the end of them, but rather he should do as she’s done  (“and i still think of you as my boyfriend/i don’t think this is the end of the world/but i think maybe you should follow my example/and go meet yourself a really nice girl”). However, it sounds like the boyfriend may have a strictly monogamous mindset (“in the end the world comes down to just a few people/but for you it comes down to one”) so the song ends on a sad note. Even so, I really like this song for its realness.

Love In Stereo” by The Monks

This pop punk song sure doesn’t make it sound like the guy singing it is having very much fun being in a relationship with two women (“You might well look on and envy me/But this feelin’ isn’t so hi-fi”), as it’s mostly a recitation of all the hassle it is having two women who have different needs (“One wants to stay at home/the other wants the night out/one wants to read in bed/the other wants the light out”). He sounds like he’d much rather be in a monogamous relationship, but he’s the one choosing to have two relationships simultaneously instead of making a choice between his two lovers, so his polyamorous situation is all on him.

My Girlfriend’s Girlfriend” by Type O-Negative

This song was a wild departure from the gothic metal sound that permeates most of Type O-Negative’s music, with its bouncy keyboards and upbeat rhythm. The only thing tying it to their signature sound is the late Peter Steele’s always sinister sounding voice. The man could have sung the My Little Pony theme song and it would have had a touch of darkness in it. Another song about a man with two lovers, he’s having a much better time of it than the “Love In Stereo” guy (“They keep me warm on cold nights/We must be quite a sight/In our meat triangle/All tangled”).

My Girl’s Got A Girlfriend” by Ray Lavender

What does Ray Lavender, whom I’d never heard of before making this list, do when he finds out his girlfriend is cheating on him with another woman (“I hear moanin’/Fo’ real somebody, I finna kill somebody/Then I get closer, I hear groanin’/Bust in the door and see my girl wit a chick”)? Well, according to this song he just slides into bed with them (“I’d rather just join in/Keep my girl and keep the other one too/My girl gotta girlfriend, Hey!/It really it’s not a problem/’Cause Ima make it do what it do, girl!”). Girlfriend fucking another guy equals murder, girlfriend fucking another girl equals a happy surprise. Got it…we’ll file you firmly into the One Penis Policy category. It may be a bit misogynistic, but he’s definitely into keeping things going in an openly non-monogamous way so it makes the list.

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