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Why Do We Call It Polyamory?

If you listened to Season 2, Episode 1 of the podcast (or if you didn’t, but read the post under the Start Here! Tab on this blog; or if you overthink words a lot, like I, a big geek, do) you might wonder why on Earth we stuck with the term first found in print in writing by a kind of culty person in 1990, rather than one of the terms social scientists prefer like “consensual non-monogamy;” or one of the ones the first books with good sales by our community for our community, The Ethical Slut, coined, like “ethical non-monogamy”?

Honestly, it’s mostly that polyamory sounds prettier and less clinical than either of those longer terms. We don’t usually talk about “monogamy” except in clinical settings, either - we talk about ‘exclusive relationships’ or ‘serious relationships’ or just ‘relationships,’ period. The relationship escalator has such a huge impact on how we talk (or don’t talk) about monogamous relationships that needing to have terms for polyamorous relationships, right down to polyamory itself, becomes a fraught question.

Polyamory, at the time that Morning Glory Zell used it in writing and made it part of the canon, was in a just about 20 year battle for supremacy against polyfidelity for fashionable or artistic-sounding word for this relationship style with multiple people involved. It essentially won because not all (and not even most) polyamorous relationships are closed networks - regardless of the fact that monogamy+1 or +2 in the form of polyfidelitous triads or quads are the format that are most often used to demonstrate that polyamory exists and works on TV or in print media pieces on the topic - because they’ll be the “baby step” to help folks understand that this exists and then we can give them a complicated constellation to worry about later.

The reason our podcast might have made you wonder why we stuck with this word is not the mixed Greek and Latin roots, or the culty 70s roots - it’s the lack of definition of what part of what sociologists call “consensual non-monogamy” we’re talking about. Which of the Ethical Sluts from Hardy and Easton count as polyamorous? They cover all of ethical non-monogamy, from Dan Savage’s (who hadn’t said a word about it yet, but would become famous for it later) monogamish to swingers to lifetime commitment polyfidelitous units and a world in between and around. There are very blurry edges to polyamory.

If love is the defining factor, do people who have multiple long term loving relationships but also some play partners and not love-based relationships no longer count? Are we giving polyamory to people who only have sex after they’re sure they’re in love or never have sex at all? So, are only demi- and asexual people polyamorous? I'd bet the answer to all those rhetorical questions is no. I’m pretty sure the answer isn’t to abandon the term, but there’s an obvious grey area to be addressed. As we discussed on the podcast, I also don’t think the answer is to expand polyamory to include every form of ethical non-monogamy that could possibly exist, but it’s not up to me to decide someone’s identity for them. If they identify as polyamorous because they’re open to multiple loving relationships, but they currently have one or none and are having a bunch of sex, it’s not up to me to identify them some other way. If they do something in the middle where they combine relationship styles and identify as polyamorous, again, they are. It’s not my job to be the polyamory police, nor yours. Would I (as a word geek) find some more specific words fun? Yes. Would other people, like my partner, who finds all these words clinical, unnecessary, and a pain in the ass, not? Yes.

So, on balance, what do we do with our blurry word set? We keep having a lot of conversations, some of them very messy, some of them easier, about what we mean by “polyamorous,” by “open,” by “Of course I’m dating other people occasionally,” so that we can be on the same page about the blurry, prettier words we use in place of the (fully clinical) “ethical/consensual non-monogamy.”

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