27 January 2013


Andrea Zanin at Sex Geek has a terrific long post, The Problem With Polynormativity.

Polyamory is getting a lot of airtime in the media these days. It’s quite remarkable, really, and it represents a major shift over the last five to ten years.

The problem—and it’s hardly surprising—is that the form of poly that’s getting by far the most airtime is the one that’s as similar to traditional monogamy as possible, because that’s the least threatening to the dominant social order.


These articles are looking to present a fantasy of conventionally good-looking people having delightful transgressive (but not scary transgressive) sex while remaining as firmly within the boundaries of conventional couple-based relationship-building as humanly possible under the circumstances. That fantasy sells things. It does the rest of us no favours.

She identifies four attributes of polynormativity:

  1. Polyamory starts with a couple
  2. Polyamory is hierarchical
  3. Polyamory requires a lot of rules
  4. Polyamory is heterosexual(-ish). Also, cute and young and white. Also new and exciting and sexy!

She identifies three key problems with this:

  1. The polynormative model is kinda sucky.
  2. The media presents these poly norms as, well, norms. As The Way to Do Poly.
  3. This whole state of affairs screws over the newbies.

An unwillingness to grapple with this mess is a big reason why I don't write much about poly or involve myself in the poly community. I'm glad that Zanin has written this so I don't have to; I agree with just about everything she says except her enthusiasm for Wendy O. Matik's book.


A friend on Facebook punctures some of my enthusiasm for the piece. It's apparently reflective of a strain of poly rhetoric that I haven't seen happening. Here's a slightly edited version of my friend's comments:

It's actually something I see a lot from bloggers trying to be Big Name Bloggers. Franklin Veaux has been on a kick of delegitimizing primary-secondary relationships for over a decade.


Examples of tropes in this article— polyamory-as-revolution, connecting primary-secondary to “hierarchy” and implying its connection to oppression-via-hierarchy, “primary” means “putting this person's feelings over that,” open derision of the idea of “poly couple” (is a poly person a “poly single”? Yes. But a “poly couple” is an oxymoron), orthodoxic anarchism, calling “going poly” a hobby, professing what does and does not upset the system, ignoring past stabs at poly-in-the-media which were triad focused (Divilbliss family, etc).


And that is, basically, what my partner and I do, too. I do, however, really feel for people who are dipping their toes into polyamory these days. It used to be the case that the challenge was getting information on how to live your life as a poly person. For the last 10 years or so, though, there's been an increasing trend in writers to take shots at existing subsets of the community, and the expense is that the newly poly must wade through “orthodoxy conflict” to find what's genuine to them and not fear what other polyfolk have to say about it. This is not productive.


I have generally seen two major styles advocated by the “activist” types within the community— the overly-rigid rules-and-contract system and its reactionary twin, the all-must-be-totally-equal system. The latter was something that became big with Franklin Veaux and he's made it part of his calling card. The entire concept has since been rolled up with bullshit anarchy, focusing on semantics and plugging in to arguments about hierarchy, ignoring the fact that it's not an a priori hierarchy but one of preferences and personal priorities, the sort that any anarchist makes all the time. But, it makes it easy to pick up the usual suite of arguments about Why Something Is Bad. You just need a generic hierarchy.

Make no bones about it. Poly writers have been on a decade-long campaign to make people like me and my sweetheart, and other poly couples you know, know that we are Not Really Poly. If we point to the stability, long-term viability, and investments our relationships have yielded, we are told we're clinging to monogamous notions of “success.” If we argue that we're simply following our hearts, we're reminded of super-cultural programming and heteronormativity and all the rest. Now we're being told we fail to challenge our super-culture sufficiently and that we're counterrevolutionary. There's even been a push to separate “polyamory” and “relationship anarchy” into separate camps, with “polyamory” being necessarily centered on dyads and primary-secondary while “relationship anarchy” is the real Ideologically Pure Polyamory.

Yes, she was criticizing us. At one point, she switches narrative voice to speak directly to us so she can generate a straw-man argument about our “hierarchies.”

My friend and I are obviously reading the piece differently because of having had different encounters with the poly community.

As I hinted at above, I've joked for quite some time that the worst part about polyamory is The Poly Community. I've met a few too many poly clusters with dauntingly baroque relationship roles and Agreements ... and a presumption that This Is The Way You Do It ... and seen some of the unhappier examples of this style in action. (For want of a better term, since “polynormative” is a bit loaded, I'll refer to it as The Poly Style In Question, TPSIQ.) So I have been a little spooked to see TPSIQ as the One True Poly face presented to many newbies and, increasingly, civilians.

That made the article refreshing for me. Unlike my friend, I've not seen the criticisms of TPSIQ. Reading the article again, I see that it is too dismissive of the virtues of TPSIQ; though it claims respect for folks who are well-served by it, there's too grudging a tone when it does so. Consider this:

I suspect I may get irate or defensive comments here from a lot of polynormative folks who feel just great about their model .... If you’re one such bunch, there’s no need to get defensive—I’m not really criticizing you anyway

Knowing that there are many folks who do practice TPSIQ happily and responsibly, I first read that as saying clearly that the article was not meant as a criticism of those folks.

But reading the long segment I ellipsis’d out there, one can take it as skeptical that everyone doing TPSIQ is as well-served by it as they say (grudging) or implicitly rejecting the possibility that any of them are well-served (hostile). I read it closer to the former, but perhaps even that is too generous.

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