When a person is in a romantic relationship, but maintains sexual connections with others, it is common to conceal the latter in the mainstream. The basic rule of a polyamorous lifestyle is the exact opposite: Every partner knows of every other partner, and other people with whom their partner has sex. Secret connections are forbidden.
All around the world, the so-called poly community promotes this polyamorous lifestyle. They offer regular meetings, discussion groups, parties, Facebook groups, and, in many cities, preferred hangout spaces. The community itself emerged in the US during the early 1990s and filtered into Europe in the course of the 2010s. This is why, in 2019, most ideas and beliefs still originate in US communities and come to European cities in books or over the internet.
Here and there, people from a specific social class happily adopt the poly philosophy: Academics in their 20s or 30s, who earn an income of their own, who like to experiment with social expectations, and live in a bubble which has allowed them to face little consequences of their own actions so far – so, mostly Bobos (to-be).
Since Austria, the country where I live, is largely rural and conservative, the members of this educated class are drawn to the more independent life in the cities, to the capital Vienna and the city Graz, where most of the university students live. Consequently, the poly community in Vienna has the most members, and an excellent network with the community in Graz. The same people are also attracted to other alternative subcultures, such as left-wing activism, poetry slams, the queer community, Gothic events, Goa festivals, and BDSM spaces. Therefore, in such comparatively small cities, poly-curious people keep running into each other at numerous such events.
I spent my leisure time of a whole year (August 2014 – September 2015) almost exclusively in the poly community in Vienna: I went to meet-ups nearly every weekend, participated in activities during the week, and, in the end, also organized a few events. However, to curious people, I can only issue a warning : If you care about your mental health, ignore this community!
The poly community presents itself as an alternative, even rebellious lifestyle, in contrast to the mainstream: The people and the community say that they have liberal worldviews, are more tolerant, sexpositive, open to new ideas, and, above all, open to an honest approach to alternative forms of sex and love, which most people in the mainstream claim don’t exist, or at least not in a healthy way. This especially includes multiple simultaneous romantic relationships , that give the poly(amorous) community their name.
But under this liberal surface, a very different picture gradually emerged.
Contrary to their message, the poly community does not even have the slightest insight in how to enter and maintain a loving romantic relationship with more than one person at the same time. Worse still, the most widespread ideas and beliefs are destructive strategies: When people try them in everyday life, they do not add strength to their romantic relationship(s), but accelerate a separation instead, regardless if there are two, three or more romantically involved individuals.
In addition, the community itself fosters highly problematic group dynamics:
Polyamory.at, a central website for the poly community in Austria, describes the common aims of poly events:
It’s definitely not a place to look for partners or try out pick-up lines.
[It] is for everyone interested in polyamory; whether it’s your first time talking openly about feeling polyamorous or your concerns about opening your relationship, you have lived for years in a polycule and want to hang out with other polyamorous people or fall anywhere inbetween.
Source: Richard und Sky (2019) Polyamory.at – Detailed descriptions of poly groups in Austria [Online]. Available at https://polyamory.at/english/english-descriptions (Accessed 29 October 2019).
This, however, is not true. While everyone claims that poly meet-ups and events are about discussion, support, and friendship, and not about looking for partners or pick-ups, in reality, nearly everyone does the latter. You may now wonder why this is a problem because a successful pick-up, or a new romantic partner usually makes people happy. The problem is, however, that the people doing it conceal their intentions and gaslight this fact whenever it becomes obvious, which turns almost every poly-event from the safe space it promises to an unsafe space with unfair behaviour as the norm, scheming, and sometimes even abuse.
This is visible in the widespread slutshaming in which all sexes participate equally: Most people in the poly community who identify as “poly” distance themselves from “swingers” at every opportunity. The conversation doesn’t even need to be about the lifestyle: It’s enough for someone to talk about an erotic experience just for fun, or unfulfilled sexual wishes, with a person or people in whom they do not have a romantic interest. An accepted topic of conversation, you might think, in a “sexpositive” subculture, and for people who pursue alternative forms of sex and love.
This is, however, not the case. Usually, someone promptly states that polyamory is not about sex (especially not here at this meet-up!), accompanied by nods of agreement or even annoyed reactions from the bystanders which aims to silence the person who was speaking, and devalues them in the view of the group.
Anyone who makes the mistake of talking about swinging openly or asking questions about it receives a very obvious put-down, in the form of usual sexnegative responses: “Swingers clubs are unhygienic.”, “You’re going there? Gross.”, “Eww!”, etc. – based solely on rumors, of course, since they have never visited a swingers club, just like people in the mainstream.
People who simply want to have sex for fun are thus portrayed as inferior, on the often stated grounds that polyamory is just about love. You might argue that people could communicate this in a friendlier way, but that someone who seeks sexual encounters and not a romantic relationship is clearly in the wrong place in a community that took its name from the desire to have multiple romantic relationships.
Well, not quite.
In the course of most poly events, most straight men usually flirt with and try to pick up one woman after another, so that at the end of the evening, successful matches leave together to enjoy their pick-up at “your place or mine”. And no, most of them don’t form a relationship afterwards. The funny thing is that, despite the focus on relationships between multiple people, more than two people who leave together remain the exception: It’s almost always one man and one woman — just like when going out in the heteronormative mainstream. This is exactly what swingers do, with the difference that they do it openly and honestly, and talk about in a truly sexpositive way, without shaming anyone. The poly community, however, sees the same behavior not only as a negative trait, but actively denies it and shames dissenters (while continuing their pick-up culture for all the world to see).
Unfortunately, the toxic dynamics do not stop there. The few people who genuinely seek like-minded people for discussion and support, without an ulterior motive, don’t find each other, but likely run into disappointment, too:
The majority of people who regularly go to poly events complain about the lifestyle of monogamy and the heteronormative mainstream, which serves as a common enemy, and thus brings different people together. Most of the time, the conversation revolves around past failed relationships, and unfulfilled desires for sex and/or love with other people. The shared stories about similar feelings, experiences and problems create an atmosphere of acceptance and being heard, a new experience for the participants, who have always been blamed and shamed by their “monogamous friends” for talking about sexual and romantic wishes that the latter suppress.
Now, the “solution” to these problems is “being poly” or that someone “has always been poly”. The latter claim explains all problems of a failed relationship by a fundamental incompatibility with a “mono” person, which allows the person telling their story to refuse any responsibility for potential or obvious misconduct (such as a secret affair). The numerous declarations of “I am poly” and “Us Against the Monogamists” create the warm and welcoming feeling of belonging to a community. Those who never got lucky in the mainstream even feel that they found a social circle where they finally belong.
What the identity behind “I am poly” actually looks like in everyday life, however, remains vague in all conversations. The only shared attribute seems to be that someone is open to multiple parallel social connections that include sex. Unfortunately, there is an unpleasant reason behind this observation: Almost every person means something different, when they say they are “poly”. The blogger Oligotropos also observed this confusion in his local poly community in Germany, and I think he described it well:
There were lovers who cohabited with each other like in a traditional closed marriage albeit with multiple mates. Quite a number of other people on the other hand saw themselves as members of far-flung and multi-branched relationship-networks. Some others lived excessively all alone and joined chosen mates only at festivals, workshops or especially arranged weekend-meetings. At times there was the proclamation of the inevitable congruency with free or universal love. Whereas other Polyamorists seemed to practice something that was very similar to Swinging, and a number of people even joined in parallel or serial flings and affairs in the ubiquitous name of loving-many. And the emphasis on the expression of individual sexual freedom seemed to be at the forefront of the general thinking in many quarters anyway.
But nonetheless all of the aforementioned folks called themselves proudly participants in the polyamorous lifestyle – accentuating the very fact vehemently and noisily, especially in order to distinguish oneself from the next neighbour, who was claiming exactly the same privilege for himself…Those pervasive differences of opinion appeared to reduce the promised characteristics of honesty, responsibility and commitment – which once motivated myself to the crossover to Polyamory – to mere negotiable footnotes.
This highlights that the poly community does not use a clear definition of the word polyamory,
If you’re familiar with queer vocabulary, you might ask why this is a problem, because like many words in alternative subcultures, polyamory can be treated as an umbrella term, that is, a word for different lifestyles, for the purpose of uniting diverse people to a common cause. Without such a word and identity available, it is much more difficult for the same people to create a community and team spirit. However, in order for the positive effects of an umbrella term to actually happen, all individuals involved must know how their definition differs from others, and there must be an open discussion about these different definitions. From the discussion, the participants can formulate common aims, which in turn drive team spirit, which produces a sense of belonging and solidarity among the group members.
Again, this is exactly what the poly community is lacking. Most people simply assume that the people they talk to have the same understanding of polyamory, so that hardly anyone talks about different meanings – most people in the poly community do not even know that there are different meanings. This leaves people who are curious about the poly philosophy, and even self-identified “polys” uncertain about their own identity. People can justify all kinds of beliefs on the confusion that emerges – or at least not refute them – since it is never clear what people are talking about.
When a group of people shares their experiences in the mainstream, and the individuals are delighted about the acceptance they receive, it is never clear whether someone who uses “monogamous” as a slur is talking about “a sexual connection with only one person” or “a romantic relationship with only one person”. The fact that this ambiguity produces a problem sometimes shows itself in the form of absurd statements: Although we are a very visible polycule of three people, poly people sniffed at us for being “monogamous” on two occasions, the minute we mentioned that nobody of us will pursue further romantic interests.
An open discourse on polyamory is thus repressed from the beginning. If someone nevertheless tries to clarify ambiguities or to shift the conversation to start a discussion, by asking questions such as “What do you mean by that?” or “What does this look like in everyday life?”, they will only receive confused looks, and occasionally even angry snaps, regardless of whether the conversation was about monogamous or polyamorous issues. In fact, to inquire about meaning and implementation in real life is perceived as a disruption, because it reveals that there is not as much common ground in the community as all participants would like to believe.
Because of the very different wishes and objectives – and their obfuscation – the feeling of the poly community as a real community is, in most cases, just big talk. People who seek the benefits the community promises, such as support for a struggling relationship or a talk among friends, will quickly discover indifference where they had seen interest, and rejection from what looked like a potential friend. The respective individual probably had a different understanding of polyamory the whole time which could remain hidden long enough by the use of too inclusive language.
Oligotropos draws the same conclusion:
Even so it became distressingly apparent to me that at the dawn of the 21st century the mere term “Polyamory” was no longer consistently employed by its users. Therefore, the general term wasn’t any longer suited for congruent communication and to a much lesser extent qualified concerning the convergence of like-minded people or even community building.
Source: Oligotropos (2019) Entry 1 [Online]. Available at http://www.oligoamory.org/gb/2019/03/09/blog (Accessed 29 October 2019).