Brave Narratives and Defining Definitions

A brave narrative is a story that tells. This is a tale that might have stayed hidden, but, instead, came to light. A narrative that takes courage to tell goes beyond the typical assumptions of normative culture.

A brave narrative reaches out. A brave narrative is narrated due to hoping for hopeful collective progress rather than individual pessimistic risks. Full understanding will not always be an outcome of a brave telling, and that’s okay; all that must be hoped for is a true listening. A fair shot. A chance. A space where the listener takes in the narrative without rushing to form a rebuttal, or even a response. The ideal reaction to a brave narrative is a nod, a smile, and a “thank you.” This could be the beginning point.

According to Malea Powell’s recent chair’s address at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, narrative is not just story–it IS theory. Narrative is theory-making. World-making. Making worlds and entire universes. We come to know our lives and others’ lives by the stories we circulate. Stories are one of the most valuable actions we can contribute. Thus, telling stories is not to be viewed as uncritical or  simple– but rather a crucial form of making and distributing knowledge.    …And when stories come forth that are difficult to tell, it’s good if we tell more of those stories. It’s the difficult stories that need, most, to be heard. Educational theorist Parker Palmer teaches us that “holding tension” is the ideal state for composing human empathy, democracy, and radical learning. If we hold the uncomfortable tension between hope (how we want things to be in the future) and despair (how things really are now), then we will have the momentum to create change. Indeed, telling and encountering brave narratives are tension-filled moments. We hear about underground worlds, which confront the cheery and comfortable out-in-the open, taken for granted worlds. When these worlds collide. The brave narrative.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how narrative and definition are so important to the rhetoric and composition of the polyamory movement, both in the academy and in the broader public. Definition, like narrative, is not so simple. The act of definition can be a brave act, if what you are defining is still misunderstood or, even, reviled. Definition begins to carve out parameters. It separates what we’re talking about from what we’re not talking about. It sets the stage for analysis of more complexities, later. It’s the first move.

The word “polyamory” first entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006, although it was around for a while before that; many cite the origins of the term back to 1990. Polyamory is a hybrid word: composed of poly, the Greek word for “many” and armor, which in Latin means “love.” It’s a really new term. There’s much work to do, in terms of refining our definition. For instance, what does “love” mean anyway? Are we talking about romantic love? Spiritual love? Friendly love? What does love mean to us, to our culture? How does love relate to the kind of society we want to create?

For most of the public, polyamory is a new concept, so it must be clearly defined in relation to what it is not; as one example, polyamory is not swing culture (although, in reality, those two cultures do sometimes overlap; but it would be incorrect to say that these cultures are identical or that these cultures hold synonymous ideals–from my research and from my life experiences, I find that these are two unique cultures and should be seen as distinct). Swinging blossomed out of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, and involves mostly heterosexual couples who enjoy recreational, no-strings-attached sexual encounters/adventures at specific events and parties. Swinging can often mean swapping spouses. It is sex that has a fun, light mood. Polyamory, in contrast, came about more recently (although it can be argued that polyamory is a more “evolved” form of swinging–but more on that later), and it tends to center more on everyday relationships and intimacy-building. For polyamory, feelings, emotions, love, and more time-lengthy connections are usually embraced. In polyamory, queerness is welcomed, and “the couple” is de-emphasized, in favor of looking at different units: such as triads (a group of three lovers/partners), group marriage, single folks, and other forms. For polyamory, I’d argue that there’s more of a political bent and spiritual bent; some see the polyamory movement as an extension of the principles of socialism, as well as Eastern principles of unity consciousness.

Narrative is important because the poly movement needs to be realized as real, before it can be realized as legitimate. In the United States, there is still stigma attached to sexual activity outside the bounds of monogamous marriage. Thus, poly people may be fearful to come out of the closet, for their sexual lives do not take monogamy as the ideal state for sexual and other intimacies. With so many poly people still in the closet, though, there is an unfortunate lack of role models for poly people to look to. A lack of stories. The path is not well-lit yet.

So we need poly stories. I hope my dissertation will be one instance of this kind of story. We need stories in order to define what polyamory is. What IS polyamory, anyway? I myself often have a hard time defining it. (Maybe that’s why this project interests me so much–I love exploring what I don’t understand.) Granted, in postmodernity, the idea of pinning down definitions is suspect. And I usually agree with this distrust: It indeed can be problematic to label, to define. However, I believe that, at this stage in history, defining (through narrative) is crucial for the coming to light of polyamory, as a relationship orientation that needs to be recognized as legitimate. At this time, the only relationship orientation that is fully legitimate (legally, socially, morally, etc) is monogamy. It is an orientation that is a given for most of the culture. It is usually unquestioned. And when monogamy is analyzed or discussed, many times it comes in the form of a cautionary tale against explorations outside of monogamy, such as The Freebie, a film where two “happily” (I’d argue that they’re not happy) married people try to experiment with each having a one night stand, and it ends up destroying their marriage.

Before the 1960’s the sexual orientation of “straight” was not even seen as an orientation at all–it was just “the way it was.” Everybody was assumed to be straight…even though that wasn’t the reality. Thanks to so many brave queer narratives, thanks to the many queers who came out to their families and friends, we now are beginning to understand what it means to be gay or lesbian (I don’t think we understand bisexual or transgender–the “B” and “T” of the GLBT, though—but that’s a whole other post). Stories need to happen. Stories about people who believe it’s possible to have romance or intimate desire for multiple people, with the full knowledge and consent of all involved. We need these narratives, first and foremost, in order to begin to define.


About Anya Light

Anya Light, PhD, is an author, life coach, meditation teacher, Reiki master, and poet. Her book, Opening Love, demonstrates how relationships can be a powerful doorway to compassion and freedom.
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