The outsiders inside polyamory

The struggles of the polyamorous community to attain social and legal recognition are sometimes compared to those of other marginalised groups – women, LGBTQI+ folk and PoC – to gain equality. But is this a fair comparison to make? Here’s why polyculture’s appropriation of the language of oppression is doing more harm than good. 

When bell hooks coined the phrase ‘Imperialist White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy’ (IWSCP), she accurately labeled a systemic social force that, within north-western dominated global culture, shapes all our lives from the top to the bottom.

But, as we all know, there are always winners and losers in that race to power and privilege and those hierarchies are all too present in the microcosm of our personal lives as well as in the structures that control us. Within the arena of relationships and sexual politics, those forces that regulate our status and desirability are ever present, whether we choose to associate ourselves with them or not.

It’s true that we are all sexist, racist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, ageist and otherwise prejudiced to an extent. It’s also true that many of us do our utmost to combat those tendencies in ourselves or take a stand to protect the equity many of us crave.

‘We are a social and tribal species and divide ourselves, in this modern interconnected world, into online and digitised cohorts.’

Yet our efforts to combat those prejudices are constantly opposed – and not just by ultra-conservatives who wish to preserve the status quo. We are also adept at undermining ourselves through internalised feelings of insecurity, isolation, inadequacy and betrayal, and nowhere is that felt more strongly than by individuals within othered groups.

Within polyamory culture, one can see these forces playing out just as they do in the heteronomative-mono-culture so beloved of IWSCP. Just as in the rest of the world, it’s very much a numbers game. We are a social and tribal species and divide ourselves, in this modern interconnected world, into online and digitised cohorts based on shared values almost as much as on the old divisions of location, class and race.

But those old divisions still hold the global purse strings, and the power to break us. In part it is because we are almost certainly to be out-voted in any discussion about polyamory that takes place outside our bubble and at mono-heteronormative social occasions. If we go alone, we are still likely to be ‘the only one in the room’.

‘When I first lived in London, the “No blacks, no Irish and no dogs” signs in rental houses, flats and rooms were all too familiar.’

Polyculture, for want of a better phrase, has to me often seemed like a personal antidote to many of the normative forces I’ve outlined. We place compersion above jealousy, agency above ownership, consent above exploitation, freedom above coercion, co-operation above competition and, of course, love above gratification. But for all its apple-pie goodness, polyculture is tiny and remains unrecognised by the state laws of marriage and civil partnership, laws and regulations pertaining to tax, insurance and a plethora of other structures.

At least it is not illegal to be polyamorous. In that sense, polyculture is more mainstream now than say, gay culture was in the UK before 1967. I was brought up in the 1950s and 60s. In those days it was perfectly legal for people of colour (PoC) to be turned away from shops, not considered for employment, refused accommodation and generally ostracised. Never mind the bullying, physical and verbal abuse and life-threatening attacks.

When I first lived in London, the ‘No blacks, no Irish and no dogs’ signs in rental houses, flats and rooms were all too familiar. Of course, many people still hold racist views but such bigotry is now usually more subtle.

‘I have observed a tendency for some poly people to place themselves as if they are suffering from the same social forces as, say, PoC in the 50s and 60s.’

Though polyculture might feel as if it is fighting against a normative mono-culture that wishes it harm (and to an extent that’s true), it doesn’t compare to the othering experienced by women, LBGTI people, PoC, disabled people and many other groups over the past 60 years or so – even when those groups did their utmost to fit in and play the meritocracy game.

That is not to criticise or belittle the amazing efforts of those working hard to promote and facilitate polyamory – indeed I wish I had the energy to help more – but I have observed a tendency for some poly people to place themselves as if they are suffering from the same social forces as, say, PoC in the 50s and 60s.

In that respect, to be an outsider within polyculture is problematic – polyculture over-emphasises being an othered group and being a beleaguered social phenomenon. I’ve always been a supporter of identity politics, civil rights and political correctness. Without those social forces it is, in my view, highly unlikely we would have had equality legislation enacted over the past half-century.

‘The over-emphasis on being beleaguered seems to be a form of virtue signalling, in which to appropriate the semiotics of oppressed groups is a process of points scoring’.

Women’s suffrage and feminism showed the way and the project is far from complete. The wonderful phrase ‘intersectionality’ has given us a tool for supporting any othered group who might suffer the consequences of the IWSCP. But part of that support must be the recognition that some social signifiers are not to be unduly plundered. In the 80s and 90s I used to call myself a feminist man but I don’t anymore – I know, as a cis heterosexual man, I can never experience what it is like to be a woman in a patriarchal world.

By the same token, I’m unhappy with some of the cultural appropriation I’ve noticed in some online polycultures here in the UK and in the USA over the last 20 years – white people with dreads or wearing bindi; hetero-swingers claiming queer credentials while looking for unicorns and swelling the ranks of gay pride; twenty-somethings claiming trauma because their parents don’t like their rainbow hair and so-on.

The over-emphasis on being beleaguered seems to be a form of virtue signalling, in which to appropriate the semiotics of oppressed groups outside the bubble is a process of points scoring – as if to be properly poly it’s necessary to acquire as many of those symbolic references as possible.

‘As a PoC of an older generation, I’ve experienced and witnessed things that are mere history to those half my age.’

I’m not for a moment claiming that all people who show those symbols are faking it. No, I think it’s only a small minority who take part in the appropriation, but it’s not easy to know how prevalent it is. The appropriation I have outlined does, of course, happen everywhere, not just in polyculture. It just seems worse within polyculture because polyculture is otherwise so welcoming and aware.

Back to the numbers game. Outside the poly bubble, women, PoC and many other othered groups, even if in a small minority, can find people in similar situations. Feminism, thankfully almost ubiquitous compared to fifty years ago, means that there is now tremendous solidarity between a great many women. LBGTI people too find they are not alone – though it’s still massively tough for trans and intersex people. PoC have witnessed an astounding change for the better (even if, recently, things seem to have been going backwards).

That is in the context of the world outside the bubble. Inside the bubble, the context is very different, we are still likely to be ‘the only one in the room’ especially if we are over 60 and a member of a traditionally othered group.

‘Being in a safe space is, in some ways, more important for older people from othered groups because we don’t want to be instantly at odds with a sub-culture as well as the IWSCP.’

I might well be unduly worried – I hope I am. My own experiences do, naturally, cause me to be wary and somewhat hyper-vigilant. As a PoC of an older generation, I’ve experienced and witnessed things that are mere history to those half my age. Being in a safe space is thus, in some ways, more important for older people from othered groups because we don’t want to be instantly at odds with a sub-culture to which we feel we belong in addition to a culture that has been foisted upon us by the IWSCP.

It goes without saying that I will be guilty of many of the things I complain about – but that is the nature of our tribal social existence. What we do about it is another matter.

Nick Nakorn

Join the conversation

Have your say about this article on Facebook and Twitter.