Even after reading Rolling Stone’s recent article “Tales From the Millennials’ Sexual Revolution,” you might not have realized it was about polyamory. It was easy to miss. In several thousand words, the term appeared only one time. And no one could be blamed if the phrase that author Alex Morris chose in its stead caused even more confusion: “The New Monogamy.” Huh?
But despite the understandable confusion, Morris’ article was, at least in part, about polyamory. Novel terminology aside, it was the same old story about nontraditional relationships.
While well researched and amply quoted, Morris’ article engaged in an old, ugly trend of mischaracterizing polyamory as some kind of newly emerging phenomenon, discovered by Morris while investigating a “new sexual revolution.”
It isn’t that Morris’ profile was explicitly hostile, or even all that wary of non-monogamous arrangements. Rather, the well-intentioned reporting falls victim to an old laundry list of misapprehensions. Polyamory, according to Morris and countless other writers who have taken on the topic, is about frivolity and sex. That’s why it fits in an article that also deals with teenage promiscuity statistics and typical head-scratching over the vagaries of “hookup culture.”
I understand: Sex sells. Youth sells. Transgression sells. Package all three together and you’ve got a hot story.
But misleading stories about polyamory do a disservice, both to the immense diversity of polyamorous practice in this country and to readers who might be genuinely interested in exploring that diversity.
So, if I may temporarily take the dangerous step of speaking for my community, here are some common misunderstandings that have come out of these stories, and some clarifications for future stories:
Polyamory isn’t a trend among young people. It never was. Among the non-monogamous, there is everything from the youngish hipsters Morris profiles to long-standing domestic families with mortgages and children. Some are even on Social Security. The only common thread is deviation from strict, traditional fidelity.
Polyamory doesn’t entail a particular relationship structure. I’ve seen everything from the so-called open relationship to groups of three or more partners -- but for whom any outside entanglement would be a form of infidelity. And everything in between. The point is that those in every relationship get to figure out what works best for them.
Polyamory is not about sex. Sex is an obvious and typically unavoidable component, but reducing the idea to a sexual practice leads inexorably to the assumption that practitioners are just promiscuous, commitment-phobic or simply not yet with the “right” partner. It’s what makes it all so easy to condescend to and to dismiss.
But polyamory, at bottom, is about love, and about the idea that love is not a zero-sum game in which one partner’s gain is another’s inevitable loss. If sex comes into that, then it comes into it, but sex as an expression of love isn’t anything unique to us.
Finally: Polyamory is not a revolution. We are not rebels. We are not trying to delegitimize monogamy.
Sorry if all of that is less exciting. But hey, who knows? Maybe once the real stories are out there, this whole polyamory thing won’t seem to be “new” or revolutionary after all.
Emmett Rensin is an author, essayist and political activist in Chicago, Ill. His previous work has appeared in USA Today, Salon and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Follow him on Twitter @revemmettrensin.