Being polyamorous in the media – a cautionary tale

Last year, my partners and I agreed to take part in a BBC3 documentary on polyamory, part of the Sex Map of Britain series. It was, in short, a ‘shit show’. Here’s what we learned about interacting with the mainstream media – and our advice for anyone thinking of doing the same.

‘Hi there. I’m working on a show featuring polyamorous people and we’re looking for young, attractive individuals who want to get their voices heard…’

If you’re poly, out, and on social media, chances are you’ve received a message like this at some point.

At PolyDay in London last year, a woman giving a talk on the history of monogamy beamed at us from the front of the room. ‘You don’t realise how interesting you guys are! Polyamorous people are definitely the hot trend in anthropology right now’, she said.

The anthropology bit was new to me, but I could have shown anyone the contents of my Instagram message box to prove that a lot of people – a lot of media people – are very, very interested in polyamory.

For some people, the idea of talking to the media about their personal lives makes them feel sick to their stomach. Others are already forging ahead on their own, running blogs or YouTube channels and sharing poly stories with the world.

For those in the middle, receiving a message like this can spark a whole period of contemplation – is the personal still political? Do I owe it to those who can’t be ‘out’ to represent poly on their behalf? Am I the right person to speak up? Will it make things better? Will it do any good?

Last year, two of my partners and I agreed to take part in a BBC documentary on polyamory, as part of the ‘Sex Map of Britain’ series. The experience – the filming, the show, the aftermath – are going to stay with me for a long time.

Since then, I have been talking to the other participants in the documentary (we call ourselves the #BBCSurvivors, which should give you a hint of how it went) and other poly people who’ve chosen to take a visible media stance.

It was a chance to show that I was proud of being polyamorous and queer – that I didn’t feel it was anything to hide.’

I always knew I would step forward if the opportunity arose. I am the oldest of six, and nothing in the world matters more to me than my younger siblings.

If the opportunity arose, it would mean a chance to show them that I was proud of being both polyamorous and queer – that I didn’t feel it was anything to hide. A chance to put poly relationships on equal footing with mono ones. A chance to create evidence that they could put in front of their friends, showing healthy poly relationships that weren’t about cheating or ‘side bitches’ or sleeping around. So many reasons.

So when the BBC got in touch, I had my opportunity. A good, respectable opportunity as well! I’d already turned down MTV (too salacious) and a couple of magazines (too nosy). But the BBC had to give a balanced, fair account. It was perfect.

Can you sense the impending train wreck? We couldn’t.

I didn’t let the halo of the BBC brand cloud my judgment. I had conversations with three separate producers, each confirming for me the intention to make a show that truly represented the poly experience, that would be nuanced and open-minded and unbiased.

My trio were fortunate in that we had a great producer and cameraman work with us for the filming, encouraging us to share heartfelt and intimate recollections of our poly experiences. They told us to expect it online in early autumn – ‘no, sorry, we won’t be able to show it to you before it goes live, but don’t worry the editors are going to do a great job‘.

It went live. The editors hadn’t done a great job. My girlfriend Whatsapped our group, saying only ‘I’ve watched it’. Then the fallout began.

‘The producers were obsessed with asking about sex, even after we’d made it clear we weren’t interested in answering.’

Honestly, the three of us came off fine. But the narrative of another trio had been crudely edited into the most dramatic and negative storyline possible, and the overall depiction of poly was two-dimensional at best and outright damaging at worst.

We swallowed our disappointment and tried to focus on the positives (I was humbled with joy at my monogamous friends, who of their own accord started showing it to work colleagues or family members, using it to open discussions and correct assumptions about poly).

But the disappointment never quite went away, and after a while I asked my partners – both of whom are much better at Facebook stalking than me – to see if we could find the other people who’d been in the doc and see what they thought of it.

‘It was a negative and reductive portrayal of polyamory’, Ffion, one of the contributors from Bristol, wasn’t pulling her punches. ‘The end message is that poly is destructive and a return to monogamy is inevitable’. Joss, from Salford, was more concise: ‘the whole thing was just a shit show’.

‘The editors had traded the emotional depth of my partner’s writing for spiced-up clickbait.’

When we compared stories, we realised how many warning signs there had been. The producers were obsessed with asking about sex, even after we’d made it clear we weren’t interested in answering. The non-binary contributor was misgendered as a woman throughout the entire filming experience.

There were things that seemed so small at the time but in hindsight should have been a red flag, like how often they tried to reposition us so that the man was sitting in between the two women, to fit their male-female-female (MFF) triad ideal. And my personal favourite – the producer who asked a group of queer poly women ‘but doesn’t what you’re doing hurt men’s feelings?’

Even when there are no warning signs, the end result can often disappoint. Another partner of mine recently wrote an article for The Guardian about being a bisexual man. He wanted to reflect an experience that is often erased or misunderstood, and the anonymity the ‘Life in Sex’ column provided was an extra perk.

The polyamorous experiences of him and his partner were an important part of his queer experiences, so he made reference to it… later to find the end article had been edited to change the focus of the piece from bisexuality to polyamory – or more accurately, to threesomes, a word he’d never used himself. The editors had traded the emotional depth of his writing for spiced-up clickbait.

If you have warning bells going off, listen to them. Walk away if it’s not going to plan.’

Marcos, one of the organisers of PolyDay, takes a strong stance on journalists – ‘I would never ever speak to the media about my personal life’. Marcos has experienced both ends of the representation spectrum. In 2012, Vice wrote an article about PolyDay that managed to be sneering, judgemental and trivialising all at once.

In 2018, when a journalist from the same organisation approached Marcos to do another article, to say he was leery would be an understatement. But Marcos researched the journalist thoroughly and found her articles to be considerate and fair-minded on a number of difficult topics.

The 2018 piece is a far truer reflection of the world of poly. Marcos hasn’t been fully convinced by the positive experience however, believing that heteronormativity is the only thing the media understands, and therefore any media on poly will always be skewed.    

Possibly the worst thing about our own experience was the BBC’s response to the aftermath. To a one, all the responses we received to our concerns were dismissive and taciturn. It wasn’t their fault, we were told – ‘we can only ever film with those people that are happy to talk to us’. In other words, you were all poor contributors and if we’d had better ones then the show would have been a success. The halo had come off with a clang.

Even when things don’t go quite right, the only thing you can do is continue trying to be a good role model.’

So what advice do we have, those of us who are poly, and out, and on social media? Those of us who received the messages and replied, and stood up willing to let our voices be heard?

It’s mostly sensible advice – do your research. Get assurances on the tone and focus in writing instead of just verbal confirmation, before any filming or submissions are done. If you have warning bells going off, listen to them. Walk away if it’s not going to plan. Do your best to make choices you won’t regret.

But the piece of advice we all have is that our community shouldn’t stop trying to fight for equal and fair representation, even if that does mean engaging with the mainstream media. My partner Hannah’s reason for taking part was to help create a world where, when you googled ‘polyamory’, something other than negative articles came up.

Even when things don’t go quite right, the only thing you can do is continue trying to be a good role model. It was a belief all of us participants shared, and our negative experience hasn’t taken that away from us.

Rae

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