The Bobbu Writes

Challenging Challenges (part 1)

We polyamorous and other ethically non-monogamous folks are used to being criticised, challenged and questioned about our love styles. It’s an inevitable part of being a member of a minority group, especially one which has had so little publicity until very recently. The majority of the population doesn’t understand the way we behave, nor the philosophies behind it. So we are often faced with queries that can be tiring, frustrating and repetitive.

You only have to look at some of the media appearances of polyamory that are turning up at ever more frequent intervals to see that the same questions crop up again and again. I myself spent Valentine’s Day talking to various BBC radio presenters about the ins and outs of polyamory, repeating myself over and over again. We’re going to have to keep doing this until polyamory becomes more widely known and understood – and if the struggles of other GSM (gender & sexual minority) groups are anything to go by, that’s going to be some time in the future.

With that in mind, I thought I’d share some of the responses to common challenges and questions that I’ve come across again and again.

It’s just excuse for sleeping around

I’ve lost count of how many times people have dismissed polyamory as “just being a big slut,” or been told “oh, so it’s just sleeping around then.” Of course, the traditional response is to go for the well-rehearsed “it’s not all about the sex” line – but not only does that immediately put you on the defensive, it generally leads straight into all the questions about how you can love more than one person. We will get to those, but why don’t we turn this interrogation around quickly, and make them question the implicit judgment they’ve just made.

Why on earth would I need to make excuses if I wanted to have lots of sex? Last time I checked, sex was a good thing, so what would be wrong with it even if I were a big slut? We live in an age and culture where having sex with more than one or two people in our lives is perfectly acceptable, and even expected of the young. Why would I go through all the trouble of making excuses when I could just go about having plenty of fun? Why would I do something that means I have to put up with all these damn silly questions all the time, if all I was after was sex?

So don’t go dismissing me just because I’m getting laid plenty; it doesn’t mean I’m not having meaningful, loving relationships too.

You’re young, it’s just a phase

Aw, aren’t ad hominim arguments quaint? I’ve dealt with these ever since I came out as bi at 15, and they never cease to amaze me.

Your first instinct might be to point to older poly people and declare loudly “look, they’re doing it, they’ve been doing it for years!” By all means, do so. That doesn’t really tackle the underlying problem with this kind of accusation though, does it?

Sure, I’m pretty young. I might well meet someone I want to be monogamous with at some point in the future. People change, and I’m not going to deny that. But that does nothing to undermine the validity of what I’m doing now.

People change careers, on average, three times in their lives – we don’t tell them that working in accounting was just a phase because now they work in marketing. People convert to and from religions, and we don’t dismiss their previous religion as invalid because it didn’t fit with them anymore. So why do we have this odd idea that a relationship, or a relationship style, becomes invalid if someone moves away from it?

So what if it’s not going to last my whole life? You show me an element of someone’s personality that lasts for an individual’s entire life, without change, and I’ll concede that poly may have less weight than that does. But even then, you’d have to come up with some pretty impressive arguments to prove that longevity makes something intrinsically better.

Don’t you ever think you’ll ever settle down?

But I am settled down, in as far as I define the concept. I’ve been with a loving partner for over 2 years, I’ve a job that makes me happy, and friends who have stuck by me through thick and thin. I’ve just also got some other partners, who I happen to have been seeing for slightly less time than the one I mentioned before. So what on earth makes you think I’ve not settled down, exactly?

Oh, you mean why have I not settled down into the sort of hetero-mono-normative relationship that our society perceives as normal, and expects of me. Why do I not live in a house with my one partner and our 2.5 children, like the 50-odd year old concept of a nuclear family would have me do?

Well, that’s because I don’t believe that it’s for me. By all means, go for it yourself if that is what will make you happy. Personally, I’m more content with the life I have, which I came to through introspection, considered experiences, and not taking the status quo as given.

Don’t get me wrong, the status quo is great for the majority of people – which is why it tends to become the status quo. But what works for you doesn’t necessarily work for me, and vice versa. And just because what I’m doing doesn’t fit in with what you expect me to be doing doesn’t make it wrong.

It’s not natural

Ah, the good old naturalistic fallacy. Never fails to raise a smile – or a reference to Sex At Dawn, in many cases. But arguing about whether monogamy is natural or if we’re generally promiscuous beings is rather a moot point; not only is it attempting to generalise over all of humanity throughout time (a futile task), but it is also irrelevant to the question of ethics. Unless, of course, you’re arguing with a fundamentalist of some kind, in which case I advise you to stop it, and spend your time on something constructive instead.

The basic premise of this little challenge is that if it isn’t natural, it isn’t right. But what “natural” actually means is so vague that it really tends to mean nothing. You don’t find many people arguing that medicine is wrong because it’s unnatural (in this case meaning manmade). Then again, the Amish don’t use buttons due to their unnatural status (here meaning something not around in Biblical times). And besides those arguments, one can argue that as human beings are part of the natural world, anything we do is natural.

Then again, if someone’s telling you that what’s unnatural is wrong and you want to have some fun, point out that they live in a world powered by the harnessed energy of lightning.

It’s not normal

The person who puts this argument forward is likely to have no actual idea of what “normal” is. Philosophy has a whole field dedicated to trying to figure out what it is, and what kind of effect it has in the world. In the thousands of years of trying to get a clear picture, we’ve had very little luck.

This is mostly because people change so much, and their cultures along with them. Once upon a time slavery was normal; at another time worshipping multiple deities; at another it was perfectly fine to kill someone for stealing some bread. So if you’re going to try to argue that I shouldn’t do something because it’s not normal right now, it’s probably best you take a step back and look at the sort of precedents you’ve got there.

I would rather be on the cusp of a new idea that makes me happy, that may or may not become normal in future, than to go against what I feel is right for me just because it’s not generally accepted.

You can only love one person

Is that right? This romantic love thing is such an incredibly different beast from all the other kinds of love we have in our lives? No-one accuses me of only being able to love one parent, one child, or one friend. I see no reason why I should limit my love.

But there’s more to be said about this idea of “one at once” that we seem to have ingrained in our culture. It is built upon a foundational belief that love is not just limited, but a rare resource. This illusion of scarcity is not just an externally relevant belief, but internally too: that is to say, people don’t just think that there’s only a limited number of people in the world that they can love; they also think that they only have a certain amount of love to go around.

We poly folks tend to disagree with this preconception, preferring to think of love as being an infinite resource. I don’t have a handful of love to give, that I have to reserve for one person at once. What I do have is a finite amount of time, thoughts and energy to dedicate to each person in my life – and in my opinion that’s the only thing that limits each of us on how many partners we might choose to have.

Right, I’m going to have a bit of a lie down, before I explode. There’s plenty more comments that people make about poly people, but I need to recover before I deal with them in part 2, which you can read here.

In the meanwhile, why not share some of the interesting, frustrating and hilarious things people have said to you about being poly, down there in the comments?

Published 12 March 2012 at 4:33 pm