Is Polyamory a Choice?

It's the back of a guy's head!
Is polyamory a choice? Does it matter?


When my last essay appeared in Slate, a number of people were offended that I compared polyamory and homosexuality. The commenters’ chief objection seemed to be that homosexuality is innate, like race, and therefore “more worthy” of civil rights, while polyamory is a choice.

Even a cursory examination of the facts will blur any claim of a black-and-white, binary distinction. Sexual orientation—how sexual desire and emotional connection are informed by the physical sex and gender performance of a potential partner—is informed by both nurture and nature. Otherwise you couldn’t possibly get the vast differences that are observed across cultures and eras. There’s good reason to believe that it’s partly genetic and perhaps partly developmental as well, but at the margin, there are surely some people for whom same-sex intimacy is a choice.

Meanwhile, there are some people whose innate personality traits make it very difficult to live happily in a monogamous relationship but relatively easy to be happy in an open one. Given the persecution heaped on gays in most of the world in recent generations, and the relative difficulty of “passing,” there are probably few people who would choose that identity unless they could not find happiness in straight life. So, sure, there may be a larger fraction of non-monogamists for whom their unconventional relationship is “optional” or “a choice.” But there are almost certainly also some “obligate” non-monogamists who would never feel emotionally satisfied and healthy in a monogamous relationship, any more than a gay man would be satisfied and healthy in a straight marriage.

For many polyamorists, the idea of a partner telling them that they can never, under any circumstance, embrace their feelings for a new partner feels terrifying and stifling. If you’re a monogamist, the idea of your partner wanting somebody else may make you ask, “Why am I not enough for you?” But if you are innately poly, the idea of a primary partner trying to cut you off from even the possibility of new love fills you with a parallel anguish: “I promise I’ll never spend so much time and energy elsewhere that it takes away anything I promised to you, any more than I’d let work or hobbies take me away from you. You’ll get everything from me that you always have. Why isn’t my adoration and devotion enough for you?”

I have little experience with non-monogamists who are purely interested in outside sex without wanting emotional involvement. I would guess that among swingers, there’s a larger fraction for whom it’s “optional”—essentially a hobby. However, I also expect that if you asked enough of them, you’d find some who would tell you that they can’t imagine feeling fulfilled any other way; that in order to be satisfied with their primary relationship, they need to experience others’ desire for their partner. Is that unusual, or even rare? Sure. But as long as everyone’s having fun and nobody’s getting hurt, why should that matter? The left-handed are also a small minority. That doesn’t mean we need to tag them as abnormal or aberrant. (Or sinister.)

I’m hopeful that the psychological and sociological studies of non-monogamists that are beginning to emerge will eventually address these issues clearly. My experience suggests that perhaps half to two-thirds of polyamorists—those who want to be able to fully embrace multiple loving relationships, with sex as merely part of that (albeit an important part, just as it is in monogamous relationships)—are “obligate poly.” I’ve heard a lot of stories from people about having a few miserable monogamous relationships before they were introduced to the concept of honest, consensual non-monogamy. I doubt there are many gay folks, anymore, who get to age 20 or 25 without learning that the kind of relationship they yearn for is actually possible. That kind of experience was common when I first joined the poly community in the ’90s. Media exposure is gradually ending that problem, just as it did for gays. I suppose it may also lead to an increase in the number of “optional poly” folks joining the community, just as increasing acceptance of same-sex relationships has probably encouraged more bi people to try a same-sex relationship.

Still, as much as I enjoy omphaloskeptical explorations of the origins of my tribe, when it comes to the more important question of social acceptance, this entire conversation is a red herring. The “born this way” argument has been politically useful, but the moral argument for acceptance of gay relationships doesn’t require it. Nobody ever claimed that Mildred and Richard Loving were born with some kind of overwhelming predisposition to prefer partners of another race and that they thus couldn’t marry somebody of their own race. Choosing an interracial partner was, and is, a choice. So what? The correct response to the nature vs. nurture question is: There’s no way to know for sure, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that people love each other, treat each other with respect, and live happy, productive lives.

A monogamous bisexual has the “choice” to simply settle down with an opposite-sex partner, without ever trying intimacy with a same-sex partner. You could even argue that a “truly” monogamous straight person would “choose” to settle down with their very first partner. But very few of us would seriously recommend that. The statistics say that those who marry young divorce far more frequently. Those who take the time to experiment and figure out what they really want from a relationship when they finally do marry, stay married and are better able to invest in their children.

Speaking of children, recall that the evidence to date on gay families shows that their children grow up just as well-adjusted as those from comparable straight families (similar income, similar ages at marriage and childbirth, etc.). To the extent that they experience problems, it seems likely that these are caused by stigmatization and persecution, not by anything “wrong” with their parents. In any case, you never see anyone say that just because a straight couple has the deck stacked against them when it comes to raising their children—if, for instance, they’re young and poor—that this is a good reason to stigmatize and persecute them or to prohibit them from marrying. I know a few adults who grew up with poly parents, and dozens of polyamorists who have children ranging from newborn to college age. As far as I can tell, we’re no more likely to have relationship problems or mental-health issues than the general population—though I’d love to see more serious academic studies on the subject.

Nobody who builds a life in which they feel happy and fulfilled should have to fear having their relationships “discovered.” It is tragic, and morally offensive, that there are still places in the world, even in this country, where gay people face consequences like loss of custody of their children, loss of employment, rejection from family, or even violent attack, all simply for loving who they love. The same logic applies, with equal force, to polyamorists. In this sense, the slippery slope argument—that if we have to “tolerate” gay relationships, soon we’ll have to “tolerate” poly relationships—is correct.

If you are concerned about the complexities that legalizing plural marriage would introduce into family courts and estate law, I should note that I agree that the argument for destigmatizing poly relationships doesn’t necessarily map cleanly to an argument for poly marriage. I have friends who are in favor, but I’m skeptical that it can be addressed with the kind of simple, sweeping action that makes sense for gay marriage. For legal and financial purposes, individuals of different genders are interchangeable in a way that a pair of people simply is not. A pair of people may disagree with each other, and they obviously have separate property, and separate income and expense streams. I’d favor, instead, an incremental approach, aiming to serve the needs of all unconventional families. For instance, a pair of widowed sisters with children who move in together and function as a household should be able to file joint taxes, while not necessarily treating each other as spouses for other purposes. In an ideal world, I’d envision a process of separating out the rights and privileges of marriage, letting people assign them in more complex ways. So those widows could, without hiring an expensive contract lawyer and risking having things challenged in court by hostile family members, spell out their preferences about passage of custody, who should be their estate executor, who should have medical power of attorney, and so on. You’d still have the current version of marriage as an option—call it the Civil Union EZ, if you like Michael Kinsley’s old argument against government control of marriage—but we’d also offer a stack of a dozen or so other forms that would recognize legal arrangements for people with less common family structures.

I have no interest in playing Oppression Olympics. I chose to write about polyamory because I believe my experience and perspective may help broaden some readers’ horizons. I believe there are valid comparisons to be found in the history of attitudes towards gay and interracial relationships, and I hope these analogies will help people understand that people like me are not some kind of threat to the moral fiber of the country. I also acknowledge that all comparisons are imperfect. It seems clear that gays face a far higher probability than polyamorists of getting hurt or killed, both because it’s harder for them to pass, and because the oppression directed against them more frequently includes violence. I’ve been in a situation where I was afraid I was about to get gay-bashed. I was at a sci-fi convention, wearing a somewhat androgynous-to-feminine outfit, and stepped away from the con to visit a friend’s place for a while. Walking back to the con hotel, I was followed down a mostly deserted street for several blocks, at about 11 p.m., by four large drunken men who were upset that the local football team had just lost a game and decided to work out their frustrations by loudly expressing their offense at my existence and making threats that, luckily for me, they did not follow through on. I have nothing but sympathy for the perils faced by my gay peers.

But it’s possible to care about more than one injustice at a time. I’m concerned about attacks against gays in Russia; racially biased law enforcement policies in New York and other large cities; the misogyny displayed by influential media figures and politicians and embedded in attacks on the right to choose or even to access contraception; and all of the inter-racial, inter-tribal, and inter-sectarian violence around the world. If you believe in social justice, you should seek it universally, not narrowly for your own personal benefit. We are all human first. Everything else—nationality, sex, race, orientation—is secondary, and irrelevant to our fundamental rights. As Brian D. Earp recently argued in “Future Tense,” even if homosexuality becomes a choice, mutable under pharmacological “treatment,” it should still be regarded as part of the normal range of human behavior. We should agree on the principle that anyone pursuing consensual, loving, respectful relationships, forming happy families, and participating productively in society should be welcomed, not ostracized in the name of irrational, ossified stigma.