Polyamory at the Hospital

The following true story is not tied to my dissertation project—well, at least not directly. But, I was craving sharing this story…and so this venue, about polyamory, seemed the perfect place to do it in.

A few nights ago, I looked down at my knee, and noticed the classic bulls-eye formation—an indication of a potential tick bite. I had just spent the evening in a dense woods, playing around looking for wild strawberries with my metamour, Cordelia. I had forgotten to use bugspray.

As I have come to understand the horrors of Lyme disease through dating a woman (my first ever poly-girlfriend, actually) who had Lyme acquired from getting a tick bite, I got a little worried. I asked my partner Andrew and also Cordelia to look carefully at my knee. Their faces rumpled into concerned frowns, as they put their faces right up to my knee. After a few minutes of contemplation, they insisted I go to the emergency room.

As we drove by the light of the full moon (no, I’m not using this description to make my story more dramatic—there really was a full moon that night), my heart began to pound. It wasn’t pounding from the fear that perhaps I’d just contracted some awful disease…but actually the pounding was due to suddenly thinking about how I wanted both Andrew and Cordelia (who might be in the process of becoming my girlfriend—but we’re not sure on that count yet) in the hospital room with me. I wanted both of them for support. I wanted them both.

As we checked in, the three of us took a seat in the waiting room. We cuddled, and they cooed reassuring words in my ear, each lover on each side of me. I felt so warm, so safe, despite the negative vibes of the sterile hospital around me. I looked into my metamour’s eyes and I said, “I want you with me. When they call my name, please come back with us.” She nodded. Then she unhooked the beautiful bejeweled necklace from her around her neck, and hooked it around mine, saying “This is to keep you safe,” kissing me on the forehead.

When the nurse called my name, the three of us marched through the double doors. I was holding my breath, and my heart, by this time, was pounding at a crazy speed. And my palms were sweating. I was just waiting for the nurse to say, “Not so fast…only immediate family is allowed back.”

But it never happened. Nobody said anything. Perhaps it was because the hospital that night, around midnight, was completely empty of emergencies (nobody else was in the waiting room), or perhaps the Wood County hospital is just that progressive (I’m not sure), but nobody questioned my having two people in the room with me as the doctor inspected my knee and pronounced that, thank goodness, my mark was not from a tick bite.

images2 What I’m left with, after this experience, is the reflection upon just how nervous I got at the prospect of having to explain my polyamory to medical personnel. Why did I freak out so much about it? Why did I get so anxious? Why did I my heart beat so fast, why did my palms sweat? Why do I still fear judgment about my philosophy and practice of loving and living—even from strangers or people I will probably never see again and who probably won’t have much (or any) impact on my life? It’s very odd.

These questions are for me to answer. However, I suddenly have a bit more sympathy with the stress that LBGTQ folks talk about when they talk about dealing with medical institutions, hospitals in particular. It’s oddly strange when your mode/method of loving does not match up neatly to “normal” protocol. It’s oddly strange when your whole mode of being is denied or silenced by realms of tradition. It’s odd.

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Relationship Literacy: A way of seeing

Here is a draft of a section of the fourth chapter of my dissertation. Any ideas or suggestions for parts to expand upon? Is there anything else I should say here? Your input is very valuable to me!

Relationship literacy refers to the reflexive, critical fluency with which people can understand, analyze, discuss, and reflect upon their own as well as others’ relationship styles, choices, practices, values, and ethics. Mononormativity—the misguided assumption that all people aim to be or should be monogamous is one of the negative results of a lack of knowledge about the possibilities for relating to others in a sexual, loving, and/or intimate manner. At base, relationship literacy supports a culture of care, where a diversity of approaches to intimacy and relationships are increasingly understood and supported, rather than immediately rejected on the basis of tradition, religious doctrine, or outdated the psychological model of deviance/pathology. Ways of relating must be allowed to be flexible and in service of the individual people involved. No one model will work for all.

Relationship literacy is a way of asking: What are our connections to each other? How do we forge bonds? What options are culturally condoned? What options for connection are taboo, illegal, or dismissed as unethical? As Alexander writes in Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy (2008), “Far from being a purely ‘personal’ or ‘natural’ phenomenon, what we know about sex/uality comes to us through a variety of discourses surrounding us and in which we frequently participate” (p. 61). Extending this notion to relationships, what we know about how to form and maintain bonds with others is not personal or natural or unremarkable, but rather heavily conditioned by cultural discourses, institutions, and values that are often unseen and unremarked upon. Romantic relationships—and its normative mode of dyadic monogamy—are by no means a natural state of being. As queer theorists such as Warner and Butler have pointed out, our monogamous-centric ideology of sexuality is one that does not just spontaneously erupt, but it takes careful maintenance and regulation. If monogamy were the natural state, no such policing would be required, because people would simply choose this way of life and no deviation or no temptation to deviate would occur.

Relationship Literacy—a practice, skill, and pedagogical focus—is a way of seeing that takes into account the agency inherent in human need and desire. Love will find a way. While it may be difficult, there are those who put their job, social status, relationship with their families of origin, and even sometimes risk tangles with the law, in order to forge alternative loving systems of care.

Also important is the notion that relationship literacy moves beyond mere content to be acquired and discussed by students, teachers, learners. A literacy of relationships means opening up a new way of seeing the world and being in the world, even if that seeing and being is still (for the learner) one of dyadic monogamy. In other words, one need not be “changed” to polyamory or some other queer or non-monogamous identity as a result of coming into contact with relationship literacy. The goal is not a missionary effort. Instead, coming to a more complex and nuanced understanding of what is possible for the human animal to achieve (or not achieve) aids discursive understanding of what rhetoric and writing is all about. Persuasion, communication, and listening take on new meaning, as relationship literacy helps to peel back the layers of silence around alternative options for living. There is more room to breathe. There is an added spark, suddenly.

Polyamory is not the only orientation that can be revealed through an attention to relationship literacy, however. As a way of seeing, a range of queer practices, queer communities, and queer relationships can be either revealed or further highlighted, as learners become more savvy in decoding the myriad cultural messages received from the sex-negative dominant culture—a culture that reviles ways of loving that threaten the status quo of late capitalism. Simply put, loving more than one, or loving a gender or body type or race or ethnicity (etc.) that is taboo puts in jeopardy the blinders that mass culture tries to enforce. When one begins to step out of the box and begins to queer love and relationships, one becomes more flexible to stretch other sorts of wings. The fear of public censure begins to fade a bit, and individuals begin to wonder: What else don’t I know? What else have I been told not to do? What else have I been told is wrong, evil, corrupt, unnatural? In sum, the possibilities for a social quest and social rebellion expand. Once a relational border has been crossed, other borders become more easily seen and crossing does not illicit quite as deep fears. For some, even, further questionings and crossings become a calling.

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Jealousy-Inducing Beliefs

Here is a great excerpt from the article I’m reading today. Authors McCullough and Hall discuss how jealousy is not inevitable, natural, or something that cannot be eventually overcome or understood.

They write:

“Our culture seems addicted to three core beliefs about relationships that are almost guaranteed to create jealousy in even the most well adjusted people. Identifying and dismantling these beliefs is the most effective way of dealing with jealousy.

Core Belief #1: If my partner really loved me, there would not be any desire for an intimate or sexual relationship with anyone else.

This is based on the scarcity model of love, in which a person’s emotional or love interest in somebody else means that I will be loved less. It is as absurd as the idea that to have a second child is an indication that you don’t love your first child enough. It also presumes that sex and love are the same thing and meet the same needs.

Core Belief #2: If I were a good partner/spouse/lover, my partner would be so satisfied that they wouldn’t want to get involved with anybody else.

This belief is even more insidious. With the first belief you can at least blame the problem on your partner. This belief makes it your fault for not being the perfect lover. This is also the basis of the widespread romantic myth of the ‘one and only person on the planet.’ This is also guaranteed to cause serious self-esteem problems, which is fertile ground for jealousy.

Core Belief #3: It is not possible to love more than one person at a time.

This again is based on the scarcity theory of love, that I only have a finite amount to give.”


In the rest of the piece, the authors outline new core beliefs that can replace those old, outmoded (and stressful) core beliefs.

I really found this article particularly helpful for myself on a personal level today, as I’m dealing with what, I think, every poly person and every single human being in general goes through from time to time–which is self-esteem issues. I am battling feelings of worthlessness, sadness, fear, anxiety. I feel overwhelmed by an intense, almost insatiable desire for a partner that I have who lives at a long-distance from me, and am overcome by grief at missing him. When we are not near each other or not communicating, I somehow feel like I am less. Like I am worth less. Reading this article today helped me to remember that much of these negative feelings I have are a result of flawed cultural programming. Although I wouldn’t characterize my feelings as jealous ones, I do think that my current emotional issues are a result of a general scarcity mindset. I need to remember that each moment, no matter who I am with or not physically with or near, is beautiful and perfect just as it is. I need to remember to love all those I come into contact with. I need to remember that constant craving and desire and attachment is, ultimately, going to result in suffering.


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Some thoughts inspired by “Big Love”


Where am I in my dissertation process? I am working diligently on chapter 3. Where am I in my “free” time? Well, I am finally getting around to watching the final season of the tv show “Big Love.” In that episode where Bill and his three wives ice skate in public, all holding hands, while crowds gawk and whisper struck an emotional emotional cord in me. Granted, “Big Love” is fiction, and it’s hyper-dramatized at that. Granted, Mormon polygamy has historical roots in the oppression of women and religious fundamentalism. However, the idea, the sheer and simple idea of multiple people loving each other, the idea of more than two adults being a family is something that I resonate with, as a polyamorous person.


I understand that political stakes have to be made and that categories are necessary for the human mind to make sense of the world: thus, I often write in my dissertation statements such as “This is how polyamory is different from swinging”… and “this is how Mormon polygamy is different than polyamory.” Yet, while those kinds of statements are sometimes indeed useful, there is a contradictory pull in me—a pull to acknowledge what “we” (all those who intentionally step outside the bounds of mainstream monogamy) all do have in common.


What we have in common, perhaps, is a sense of courage. A sense of pride. A sense of longing, sometimes, to be perceived as normal so that we can live our lives in peace. We—those who choose to create and maintain relationships outside the boundaries of what is considered “moral” by the vast majority of the public—have a special knowledge that comes from being, as feminist Gloria Anzaldua wrote, of “border consciousness.” When one lives in the border zone, mediating and shifting between different worlds, one can see with a clear(er) vision the vast oppression and suffering of others. That is why, though painful, the work of the social revolutionaries are usually derived from those who have, in some major way, suffered at the hands of other’s intolerance, cruelty, and/or ignorance.


What am I trying to say? Nothing conclusive. This is a brainstorm. All I’m trying to do is make a rough sketch, a simple gesture, saying something simple about how oppression, suffering, and seeing are all connected. And, while drawing lines in the sand is fine for intellectual purposes, I think that, for the poly movement to work, we need to put aside self-righteousness; we need to not deny but rather affirm our commonalities with those who have differently-styled relationships choices, loves, and families. Difference is what unites us.



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Excerpt from my in-progress dissertation: Recommendations for future research

I just finished up the section of my dissertation where I provide suggestions for future research on polyamory. I thought y’all might be interested in taking a peek. I have also included the full list of references that I cite for the entire chapter (Ch. 2). Please give me feedback, if you feel so inclined! Thanks!

PS: I apologize for the spacing being not-so-perfect for my references list. I spent an hour playing with it, but wordpress seems to hate me today. I have thrown my hands up in defeat, and leave it as is. I know you intrepid folks out there can make sense of it, though! I have faith!


The Future

     A methodological problem has arisen throughout every one of the qualitative studies I reviewed: the problem of not obtaining enough participant variety. Again and again, participant groups are comprised of mostly middle-class, well-educated, able-bodied Whites. At this point, it is unclear whether attempts to obtain participants across a range of races/ethnicities and income/education levels is due more to the fact that polyamory as a practice and identity has not yet spread to those outside the white, middle-class, able-bodied categories and communities, or, if the problem instead lies with the researchers themselves not being able to put into motion the right kinds of connections, the right kinds of networks to reach other kinds of participants due to (unfortunate) racialized histories and influences. No matter the reason, however, this lack of participant variety in the qualitative data works to create a portrait of polyamory as a White, educated, able-bodied and predominantly “middle-class Western discourse” (Rambukkana, 2010, p. 238). In my own personal experience with polyamory communities, this portrait does not seem entirely accurate, however. For example, at a monthly private (invite-only) poly support/social group that I attend, at least half of the participants would be categorized as working class and have not had more than a high school education or a few years at a trade school, with many either unemployed or underemployed. There are also a number of affluent attendees (a few millionaires, in fact). Also, at this support group—which meets in rural northwest Ohio—there are a number of African American and Native American attendees, which is surprising considering the mostly White population in the surrounding towns. In addition, there are a relatively significant number of attendees who are differently-abled (either due to injuries or chronic illnesses), and many of these people cannot work typical jobs, either relying on economic support from their spouses or from government aid. Granted, my comments here are not based on any formal data; however, I do point to this out as a way to add weight to my call that researchers aim to fill the large methodological holes that currently exist in the scholarship. We need more information about poly people who are non-white, differently-abled, and from educational and class backgrounds other than the middle class.

Researchers in rhetoric and writing would do well to consider conducting qualitative work, such as ethnographic studies of polyamorous communities (both virtual and in-person), as well as publishing narratives and autoethnographic accounts of their own experiences with polyamory or other non-normative ways of doing relationships, as the “relatively unknown nature of polyamorous practices and communities makes qualitative, and especially ethnographic, research an appropriate methodological choice” (Sheff, 2007, p. 112). The pioneering autoethnographic work of Sheff, where she discusses her quite-personal involvement (both intellectually and sexually) in poly communities, can be used a model for such future studies. Significant effort must be made to contact participants and groups who are not white, not middle class, not able-bodied, and from various educational backgrounds. Key questions that could be asked of poly-identified or poly-practicing participants are: What types of people comprise your poly friends, loves, and networks? What types of people are not present in your networks, and why? In asking participants themselves to directly weigh-in on the composition of polyamorous communities (in other words, involving participants in discussions of methodological issues), we might begin to get a better picture of how knowledge of polyamory, as an option, spreads. Who knows about polyamory? How did they come to know? At what point in their life did they come to know? What blocked their knowing or subtly hindered their knowing about polyamory before they knew? How long did it take for participants to learn about poly before actively engaging in polyamorous practices or identifying as poly or coming out of the closet as poly? When participants came out as poly, what words did they use to describe themselves, and were these words intended to create a sense that, even though poly, their lives and loves were “normal”—or did participants use language to critique the dominant mandate that people should strive to be normal? In qualitative/ethnographic work, these questions can help shed light on just who comprises poly communities and how those communities came into being.

The problem of not obtaining enough participant variety is not always overlooked or hidden, though. Some researchers openly admit to these limitations in their methodology sections, and sometimes they even offer possible—often intriguing—hypotheses for their being unable to obtain a more diverse population sample (e.g., Sheff, 2006, p. 624). Future qualitative work should continue the task of attempting to find more diverse populations to study beyond simply White/middle-class/able-bodied/university educated, and in addition, should begin to work to test the available hypotheses (or even new offer new hypotheses and then test those) to explain the lack of diversity portrayed by research studies. It is entirely possible that, even if researchers tried more creative ways of creating a more diverse population sample that the portrait of poly communities would remain the same. Sheff and Hammers (2011) reminds us that “we must consider that, on some level, there might not be anything to be done about the dearth of people of colour [and people of other diverse categories] in samples of sexual minorities” because those people just might not opt to participate in public poly communities/networks and just might not self-identify as poly, even though their behaviors might be quite similar to self-identified polys (p. 217–218). If that is the case, then the research questions need to change, and we need to ask more questions about how race and class and other factors impact the way people behave or identify (or not) in poly ways. We can ask questions like: How does being Asian affect one’s choice to have multiple partners? How does notions of choice and agency relate to race/ethnicity? How does being working-class impact one’s knowledge of the term polyamory? Does education relate to one’s self-identification or one’s coming out as poly? How does being disabled affect sexual practices in dyads or groups? How might being elderly affect participation in public poly events or organizations?

Another important area for future research: poly scholars can make more explicit connections between forms of consensual nonmonogamy. Swinging, open relationships, fuck buddies, polyamory, and other variations might not be so wildly different from each other. Indeed, “There is a continued need to explore consensual non-monogamy both generally and relating to particular identities or categorizations . . . as it is indeed overlooked in much traditional sociological research on marriage” (Frank & DeLamater, 2010, p. 20). While distinctions and differences are important to point out, we often miss some common-ground-building that could happen through an attention to what people have in common rather than what they don’t. By utilizing the concept of relationship literacy as a creative force for understanding the creative ways of knowing and engaging with others, we can ask, in celebration: what are the similarities, the overlaps in ideals, practices, traditions? Here are some examples. Both polyamorists and swingers are frustrated by a very sex-negative mainstream culture, a culture that places high priority on sexual exclusivity; both swingers and polys enjoy engaging in new, exiting, free-spirited sexual acts beyond normative expectations and limits. The two groups of polyamorists and consensual polygamists both explore sexual networks and intimate connections between people in ways that break traditional boundaries of the dyad form. Along with the political theme of the need to engage in coalition-building (e.g., Noel, 2006; Haritaworn, Lin, & Klesse, 2006), it is important to remember that however important categorization is as well as the recognition of difference (made possible through the thought-vehicles of feminism, anti-racist scholarship, engaged critical pedagogies, as I will discuss in Chapters 4 and 5), it is equally important to realize when people and groups share common ground. In doing so, we feel closer to one another and feel less isolated in our quest to achieve social and individual progress.

Further, it is important to create scholarship that makes more of an effort to point out the similarities between the seemingly incompatible monogamous identities/practices and poly identities/practices. A few examples: both polyamory and traditional dyadic marriage explore connecting, loving, evolving, and relating in often profound, long-term ways. Polyamory and casual dating or fuckbudies actually have much in common too, as both are explorations of sexuality without placing limitations on the other person.

Finally, I believe that more needs to be done to focus on the sex-radical and sex-positive politics of polyamory. Both popular and academic narratives and analyses tend to focus on polyamory as an act of long-term love relationship or as an identity or kind of relationship style/orientation that is totally different from “casual,” short-term sex. This makes logical sense in that polyamory evolved from the 1960s practitioners of polyfidelity (a form of group marriage/commitment that typically emphasizes sex only inside the group), which placed greater importance on emotional relating and relationships that, ideally, last for the long-term (Wheeler, 2011, p. 23). Along with Andrew Samuels (2010), I want to question the judgment made about the value of relational time in regard to healthy, positive forms and expressions of sexuality. Samuels’ critique seems right to me—that we may begin to understand the positive aspects of sex/intimacy shared between friends, casual acquaintances, or even strangers in light of what one might call a “mystical experience” (p. 216). Taking a positive spin on the term promiscuous, Samuels has written: “There’s something numinous about promiscuous experience as many readers will know. Overwhelming physical attraction produces feelings of awe and wonderment and trembling. There is a sort of God aroused, a primitive, chthonic (that is, rooted in the earth), early, elemental God. There is an unfettered experience of the divine” (p. 216). Further, I want to challenge scholars to consider the hidden values and norms that attend thinking any kind of sex as automatically shameful, dirty, risky, problematic. The potential dangers of increased sexual activity is a valid argument against more freer forms of love—yet, as scholars such as Munson (2010) have pointed out, monogamy is not necessarily any safer than polyamory in terms of risk for STI transmission.[1] Unlike monogamous couples (where, by the way, it is entirely possible that at least one of the partners is secretly engaging in sexual acts with others—according to recent statistics, the likelihood that one spouse will have an affair over the course of a marriage ranges from 20 percent to 25 percent[2]), poly people cannot assume that they are safe. In my personal experience with a variety of online and in-person poly communities, networks, and friendship circles, I have been astounded to see new poly members (often formerly monogamous) undergo a radical, rapid education. New people in poly communities, often for the first time, begin to enact safer sex practices and create boundaries and long term planning with the health and wellbeing in mind of not just themselves, but their partners and the larger, extended networks of polys within which they engage. There are a variety of preparedness strategies that polys can take, such as implementing closed poly tribes or polyfidelitous families, weekly or monthly STI-status reports given to all concerns parties, open and honest dialogue with partners before sexual acts occur, the use of toys in place of oral or manual stimulation, and regular medical screenings.[3] In making these calls for more sex-positive understandings of sexuality, I do not wish to claim that all sex is inherently unproblematic. Sex is a sensitive and powerful issue and act. I do not, further, wish to unintentionally reify the binary of sex-as-good as opposed to sex-as-bad. What is my intention is to inspire scholars to take a more expansive approach to sexuality, approaches that take into account the possibility for sex to be a healing, connective force, rather than an automatically risky or dangerous one. Using the concept of relationship literacy, we may begin to realize how normative understandings of sexual mores place any sex outside of a long-term dyad form as inherently negative, unethical, or problematic. Revising these assumptions will open up new spaces for dialogue to occur about relationship forms, identities, and practices that begin from a place of optimism for how sex/uality can be a powerful, creative, ultimately healing and connective act. In recalling my previous comments about revising the us (safe inside) versus them (dangerous outside) mentality, we can begin to view sexuality and intimacy as energies that bring people together in love, rather than those which expose us to harm.

A related notion about time is questioning why experiments with nonmonogamy or polyamory are often tried by people but then denigrated or abandoned when relationships end. The bisexual activist Alison Rowan (1995) has convincingly written about this perplexity. Here is one particularly compelling passage:  There is one more thing that non-monogamy, or my constant defense of it, has taught me, and that is about the success of relationships. This actually came to me after running a workshop on non-monogamy where out of 30 people, at least half said that they had tried non-monogamy once, “but it had failed”. This phrase got stuck in my mind until I had to work out what was wrong with it. What did they mean by failed? What does anybody mean by the word when they’re talking about relationships? They mean the relationship ended. Which is very odd when you come to think of it. A meal is a failure because it doesn’t taste nice, not because you ran out of food to eat, but a relationship can “fail” even if it’s fun all the way through, because a meal isn’t supposed to last forever and a relationship is if you’re monogamous. But if you’re not monogamous this [theory] just doesn’t work anymore.” (p. 18)

If the time aspect of judging relational quality is exposed in further scholarship, perhaps bridges could be built between those who have (at one point in time) tentatively tried polyamory or nonmonogamy and those who proclaim a poly and nonmonogamous identity. Perhaps if we deconstruct the myth of relationships as only “successful” if they last “forever,” then more productive dialogue can be had between those who have experienced serial monogamy, swinging, and other types of adventures without necessarily choosing the label “poly” or “ethically nonmonogamous.” Along with Rowan (2010), I believe it will be incredibly productive—in ways that I cannot even begin to foresee—that “people abandon longevity as the sole measure of the success of a relationship” (p. 18).

Another important strand of thought to be pursued in research regarding human sexuality, ethics, social justice, anti-normativity, or anarchist thought is a more thorough distinction between a simple rejection of monogamy and a rejection of mononormativity. This relates to calls for more overt politicization/activism in poly writings/theory outlined in the previous section. As Wilkinson (2010) notes, a rejection of monogamy in one’s personal life is not enough—scholars need to “address the false assumption that those who practice non-monogamy will have an inherent commitment to wider political change” (p. 242). As many in the polyamory movement have attempted to portray themselves in normative ways in the popular media, in order to gain recognition and acceptance from the broader public, Wilkinson points out the flaws inherent in this approach, for such an approach fails to make societal change on a truly radical, foundational level. Along with Wilkinson, I argue that “there is a need to differentiate between a rejection of monogamy and a rejection of ‘mononormativity’ . . . By making this distinction we can begin to map out a vision of what a politics of anti-normativity could become (while separating it from the rather more ‘normative’ lifestyles of those who may simply be non-monogamous). (p. 243)

Finally, more work needs to be done to estimate the numbers of people who are in polyamorous relationships or identify as poly. Currently, researchers aren’t sure just how many poly people there are in the United States, and elsewhere. Leading poly researchers such as Meg Barker (2013), in her most recent book Rewriting the Rules: An Integrative Guide to Love, Sex, and Relationships cites sociological and psychological studies that estimate—based on somewhat limited and somewhat outdated data—that the proportion of people in openly nonmonogamous relationships vary from 15–28 percent of heterosexuals to around 50 percent of bisexual and gay men (p. 103). But we just don’t know how many poly people there are. It’s important that researchers have more concrete figures for the specific practice/identity of poly, and not just nonmonogamy. We need more statistics quantifying how prevalent open poly relationships are, as well as more subtle, closeted practices of polyamory by those who do not necessarily identify as poly. Understanding how widespread poly identities, practices, and philosophies are will help provide impetus for ongoing research. In addition, broader studies in the social sciences about love and intimacy need to begin to take into account what Hidalgo, Barber, and Hunter (2007) refer to as the dyadic imaginary, which is an “ideology or hegemonic concept that renders non-dyadic intimate and sexual relationship forms invisible and unnatural” (p. 173). Empirical studies about how people do intimacy and love must include, at the very least, nods to how those in multiple relationships might compose their lives. Multiple relationships must not continue to be invisible or portrayed as unnatural. The methodologies in these studies must, therefore, go beyond choosing just couples as research subjects.

Like the term polyamory, understanding of the term mononormativity is just beginning to blossom across the academy. In conjunction with already-existing and well-accepted terms like compulsory heterosexuality and heteronormativity, I believe the term mononormativity has the potential to be influential in spreading the word about polyamory as an ethical relationship lovestyle, as well as giving learners across disciplines some much-needed vocabulary for explorations of relationship literacy. For rhetoric and writing in particular, mononormativity helps us ask some tough questions about language. What are “relationships”? What kinds of “normal” relationships does our culture value? What is the difference between a “lover” and a “friend”? What is the difference between a “partner” and a “lifepartner” or a “girlfriend” and a “boyfriend”? Does the poly terms of “primary” partner and “secondary” partner(s) serve a practical function for organizing how one will spend one’s time and energy, or does this terminology simply reify a problematic hierarchical system? What does monogamy and polyamory have to do with eros and ethics? What is my personal definition of love and what sorts of love do I want to cultivate in my life? What are the possible options for loving? Or, as feminist Sonia Johnson (1991) has put it, “What would love look like in freedom?” (p. 113).

[1] For a compelling critique of the global “health care” paradigm that mistakenly focuses on allopathic hypotheses to explain and control conditions such as AIDS, please see Anderlini-D’Onofrio’s account (2009, pp. 59–103). Ultimately, she argues that polyamory can be seen as a healing art, and not something to be feared on account of the—as she sees it—mistaken mainstream understandings of health, the body, and ecology.

[2] For more interesting statistics and estimates such as these, please see the chapter “Communication and Marital Infidelity” (Vangelisti & Gerstenberger, 2004, pp. 59–61)

[3] For more on STI’s, safer sex issues, and navigating the health care system as poly, please see Wheeler (2011, pp. 59–60).


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Short & Not-So-Sweet

All of the poly people I know that are in the closet as poly (at least partially) work for corporate America. The ones that are “out” work in academia, are unemployed, or are freelance artists or own their own business. Interesting. Very interesting.

And, when I think about it, the majority of poly people I personally know are in the closet. Which makes me wonder…if all the poly people were to Please Stand Up–what would happen then?

Posted in coming out, inspiration, questions, societal repression/control | Leave a comment

“Polyamory Across the Disciplines”: A Transcript

I am very excited and grateful to be presenting some of my dissertation research this weekend at a graduate student conference, hosted by The English Department at the University of Cincinnati. The theme of the conference is “Being Undisciplined“–which fits in so perfectly with this current project, as one of my aims is to show how poly has been analyzed across, between, and among various very different disciplines.

I thought it might be cool to include a transcript of my talk here, so that folks who hear me speak on Saturday might be able to re-visit my words in a different medium (online and written, as opposed to simply aural). In addition, I invite those who are/were not present on Saturday to read this. Thanks!

Also, I welcome any comments, critiques, or feedback!


“Polyamory Across the Disciplines” 

There is something that cannot be disciplined.  Love. Love cannot be disciplined. It refuses to be. By its very nature, love is an act and an energy of connection. It is about bringing together and exploring and questioning and getting excited and getting scared and changing—all things that refuse neat categorization, division, separation. In this way, you could say that love is…quite queer. Love doesn’t stay the same. Love is beautiful and messy and full of surprises.

This talk today springs from my longer dissertation project. I’m currently writing and researching the second chapter. My dissertation is titled, “Relationship Literacy and Polyamory: A Queer Approach.” If you’d like to know more about this project beyond what I’m saying today, feel free to check out the link to my diss blog on the handout I passed out.

So, you might be asking yourself, Why? Why polyamory? What is polyamory? Why is this  the subject of Heather’s dissertation?

Let me tell you a story.

You see, I fell in love. You see, I had found someone. I found a person; he wanted to be my lifepartner—and, miracle of miracles, I felt the same way. I was in love. We were wed, one of the most ecstatic, and dare I say triumphant, days of my life. I was happy. Blissful. And, then, I found myself, to my great bewilderment, in love. Again. But with someone else (!?) This was NOT how my story was supposed to go.

That new love for that new person didn’t swoop in from nowhere; it developed gradually, over time, like all deep love does. And I woke up one morning and realized: Shit. The values of my culture tell me that I should either a) break up with my lifepartner so I can begin to pursue this new person, OR b) avoid this new person entirely and suppress my feelings about the whole situation.

Both of these options sucked. I didn’t want to do either. I didn’t desire to do either. And if I’ve learned anything about staying alive in this world, I have learned to respect desire.

So, I did something radical. I took a risk. I talked to my lifepartner, Andrew, about how I felt. And damn that was scary. I told Andrew “I am in love with another person, and I am in love you, my darling. How do you feel about this? What’s to be done?” Well, to my utter delight, he responded with compassion. My lifepartner said, “Heather, thank you for being honest with me and coming to me with this part of your heart. Let’s talk about what to do next.”

It took many months of conversation. What we both realized is that we both wanted to continue our relationship, our lifepartnership. We wanted to continue being partners, because the relationship still served us, serves us, emotionally, erotically, spiritually, materially, intellectually. It was and it is a rich relationship, so why end it?

What we also concluded was that that new love I felt for that new person was something I shouldn’t repress but rather explore. My lifepartner realized what is true: That love is not scarce—and what I could feel for someone else did not detract from or dilute the love I felt for him.

Since that time, both my lifepartner and I have fallen in love with, been in love with, desired, and experienced both reciprocated and also unreciprocated passion with other people besides each other. And what’s going on for us right now is pretty exciting.

This is our family. We’ve nicknamed ourselves “the quad.” My lifepartner Andrew (bottom left) is partnered to me, of course, as well as to Cordelia (she’s in the top right of the photo). Cordelia and Ben (top left) are engaged. I am also partnered to Ben. Cordelia and mine’s relationship, while sometimes erotic, depending on our mood, is more along the lines of sisters. Ben and Andrew’s relationship functions in a similar way; they are like brothers to each other. It might SOUND complicated, but, as many of our other close friends and colleagues have commented after they’ve spent time with us, it’s not really that complicated. We act as many families do—we have dinners together, we hang out together, we grocery shop together, we walk the dogs together, and we have disagreements together. When issues come up, we talk. There’s lots of talking. But it’s okay because we really like to talk.

What we have learned, through so much radical honesty and intense communication between each other, as well as deep soul-searching and times of quiet alone introspection and meditation, is this. And here I will quote psychologist Meg Barker. We’ve learned that: “There is no universal answer” for how people should be in relationships and “It is okay to question the rules” that society has constructed for how we should be with each other.

So, why am I writing my dissertation on polyamory? Well, a simple answer is that because I’m poly. And, there’s more poly people out there than you might think. The problem is, many of them are in the closet. The other answer I can give you about why I’m doing this project is that polyamory connects to countless other discourses. When you talk about poly, you start talking about love, about social justice, about legal issues, about affect, about anthropology, about cultural rhetorics, about feminisms…the list goes on.

But let’s back up for a minute. Some brief definitions are in order. The word “polyamory” was first coined in writing in the early 1990s. The word is a hybrid, composed from both Greek and Latin roots: “poly” meaning many and “amor,” meaning love. Polyamory…many loves.

To be polyamorous ( or “poly” for short) is to embrace the idea that abundant love, connection, and support is possible between honest, communicative, consenting human beings. Probably the most important term here is “consent.” When poly arrangements are made, there is no lying, no sneaking around. Instead, there is honest and open communication, and all parties must agree to whatever boundaries and arrangements work for those involved.

My theory of poly is that it is more than sexual desire or specific object choice. I think of poly as a larger thing. It’s a broad orientation to life. As feminist and cultural studies scholar Sara Ahmed points out, orientation should not just denote sexual object choice, but rather “as involving differences in one’s very relation to the world—that is, in how one ‘faces’ the world or is directed toward it.”


Poly is an attitude, an orientation toward living and loving that is an option that is in addition to monogamy. Most polyamory activists and theorists, myself included, are not “against” monogamy. We’re not trying to tear it down or say that monogamy doesn’t work for some people. Monogamy is indeed a valid and beneficial choice for some. What many poly activists and theorists are trying to do is not discredit monogamy but rather discredit and expose mononormativity, a term coined by poly researchers Robin Bauer and Marianne Pieper, meaning the normalizing tendency that assumes that all people should be, or at the very least, aspire to be sexually or romantically or in other ways intimate with only one person at a time.  

In academia, fields that have done the most work on polyamory include: sociology, communication studies, psychology, human development, women’s studies, theology, law, health and education, and geography. There have also been a handful of journal articles, chapters, and thesis and dissertation work done by some in literary studies and creative writing.

I’m going to wrap up this presentation by providing a brief hint of how I believe my field of rhetoric and composition, as well as those outside my field, perhaps in related humanities or social sciences fields, might benefit from thinking seriously about polyamory.

Drawing on the work of queer rhetorician Jonathan Alexander and his well-cited notion of “sexual literacy,” in my dissertation project, I am forwarding a similar term that I have coined: “relationship literacy.” Relationship literacy is a useful conceptual frame, which refers to the reflexive, critical fluency with which human beings can understand, analyze, discuss, and reflect upon their own as well as others’ relationship styles, choices, practices, values, and ethics.

Relationship literacy gives us the language to help us ask important questions about language and about how our relationships are both constrained and bolstered by the available cultural talk we have at our disposal. And thinking about relationship literacy helps us ask crucial questions about discourse, power and agency …questions like: How do I choose relationships? Are my relationship choices guided by my own ethical values, or am I being swayed by dominant paradigms of normality or morality? What is the difference between a lover and a friend? What is the difference between a partner and a lifepartner? Do I want to get legally married? How important is sexual expression in my life? What kinds of loves do I want to actively cultivate in my life?  Or, as feminist Sonia Johnson has put it, “What would love look like in freedom?”

Has there ever been a time in your life when you, in some passionate or intimate or electric or curious way, were pulled to more than one person at the same time? You can define “pull” in any way you like, and you can define “time” in any way you like. (pause)…What was that like for you? Did you feel excitement? Joy? Guilt? Confusion? Did you feel shame or embarrassment? Did you tell anyone about this pull? Why or why not?

In asking these questions to you now, I am not meaning to imply that everyone or anyone besides myself should be or could be poly. And I am not trying to say that being poly is “normal.” These are not my aims. What I am trying to do, rather, is to connect with you and reveal how, even if you identify as monogamous—you and I are not so different. There is a commonality between us: the desire to connect with others. Yet, we have all probably have had to deal with normalizing codes of conduct that have impeded that desire for connection. For instance, was there ever a time when you were shamed, either by your partner or by friends or colleagues, for doing something that you thought was no big deal, but in other’s opinions, was going over the line? Something, maybe, as simple as smiling too much while talking to someone other than your partner, or maybe simply laughing too much at another person’s jokes? Have you ever gotten flack for giving someone a hug that lasted too long? Or what about having a long lunch with a person who isn’t your partner? …In our American culture, we have intricate rules for what is allowed and what is not allowed outside the dyadic, monogamous structure. And sometimes we, either on purpose, or totally accidentally, step outside of those bounds—and we are sometimes shamed for doing so.

What I am meaning to imply is that the desire to connect (whether that be sexually, intellectually, spiritually, or emotionally)—dare I say, the desire to love—is so much a part of what makes us human.

In closing, I want to point out how in other areas of life, our intellectual academic careers for example, we are expected to change, to evolve. I have to ask why, I have to pose the question: Why, in our current culture, the goal of our romantic lives seems to be one of fixation. We say things like: I am married. I am gay. I am straight. I am a lesbian. I am with this person. I am married. This person belongs to me and always will.  …Why is it that we extend the notion of evolution and change and transformation to so many areas of our lives, yet in our romantic lives the goal is to stay stable and lock down our identity and our partner’s identity and even our future as we declare things like: “I will be with you FOREVER.” What’s up with this “forever”??? How we can we possibly know the future? And, why would we want to?

In many ways, we already recognize that life, when lived well, is a life that is in constant flux. Yet, with monogamy, which I argue is done not often through careful consideration yet rather taken on thoughtlessly, by default, is adopted far too often than actually fits a person’s needs. The option of polyamory nudges us to realize that monogamy does not have to be compulsory after all. We can stop disciplining love, and, instead, let it move into freedom.


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