Once upon a time, for this is how all good stories start, there were two definitions in the a wood. On the one side is a definition of a relationship and on the other a definition of an individual.
- Polyamory/us: a relationship in which there are multiple concurrent loving relationships.
- Polyamory/us: a person with is the ability/capacity to love more than one person simultaneously
On the surface this very well appears like two parallel paths to the same place. But they diverge subtly, like a fork in the road, and lead us to two very different places. The only thing that makes that place similar — is that it is not monogamous.
Let’s take path number one — that polyamory is a relationship style in which there are multiple concurrent loving relationships. What a beautiful path! A bubbling stream flows next to you — the gentle sounds of excitement as new dates, new partners drift in and out of our life. The bridges on this path are wide enough for 3 or 4 or more to walk abreast. As we go further down the canopy of couples privilege provides shade, for those who wish to use it.
Now let’s take the second path — that polyamory is the capacity to love more than one person simultaneously. Another pretty walk! This path is slimmer, for it does not need to be wide enough for more than one. There are occasional periods of leafy, hushed silence away from a babble of constant companionship. The light plays tricks on certain parts of the path, looking similar to one you’ve known before — is this a monogamous wlw relationship, no it’s just a strange bend in the way. The canopy overhead is made of smaller leaves, a fewer opportunities for privilege to shelter you.
Followed to the logical end — the first path, with an emphasis on the relationships you are in, means that the individuals could cease to be polyamorous if they should become un-partnered or partnered to just one person. The following of path number two, emphasizing the individual’s identity, means that a polyamorous person could be in a monogamous-presenting relationship — similar the way that I, as a bisexual, could be in a heterosexual-presenting relationship. Yet the capacity to love more than one person simultaneously is not diminished by the fact that you currently aren’t utilising that capacity — I don’t stop being able to swim just because I’m on land.
It is for each of us to choose a definition that helps us most. And unlike a path, we can of course decide that both are helpful for us. I can be both polyamorous by identity AND in a polyamorous relationship.
But it is helpful for us to disentangle the ways we speak about polyamory, especially in spaces of social discourse, or where we advocate for rights.
A pursuit of protection
There is a substantive difference between the legal protection of a person and the legal protection of a social group. The the right to do something as an individual, and the protection of a persons identity. And following these two paths can lead us to seek very different types of legal protection.
The right to conduct your relationship with many persons simultaneously (assuming consent of all parties) seems of relevance to our first definition. There are already legal protections for monogamous relationship — many of them. As such a hypothetical case for updating a law to include previously excluded seems like a potential way to get protections. Extending those options to allow legal protections and privileges (active rights) to be applied to a wider group. Sommerville MA may have been the first in the USA to do this, in recognizing a domestic partnership/household to include multiple adults in it under a new city ordinance (1).
Listen to the Poly Pages Bonus episode on Sommerville Domestic Partnership City Ordinance here
But the proposed legal changes in South Africa maybe make a better exemplar for this. Whilst South African law has enshrined the right for a man to marry more than one woman, recently an update to the law was proposed to allow women the same right (2). Similarly in the UK and other European countries a significant uphill battle was fought to update family law to include gay relationships and families.
The right to protections under the identity of polyamory — the ability to love more than one person simultaneously — seems of relevance to our second definition. The protection of an individual’s identity is part of the basis of many civil and political rights — The right not to be discriminated against (a negative right) based on ones identity. Incrementally, legal frameworks at international, national and subnational level have be updated to include protection from discrimination on grounds such as race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, color, age, political affiliation, ethnicity, religion, and disability. As with transgender rights, which has been incorporated as a revision of the definition of gender identity, a revision of the definition of ‘sexual orientation’ has been proposed to include polyamorous identity (3).
Listen to the Poly Pages Bonus episode on Polyamory: Intimate Practice, Identity, or Sexual Orientation here
Whilst political and legal protection for polyamorous relationships and families may seem far away, the real world impacts of being ‘out’ has on the lives of polyamorous people is very much here and now. In 2017, Dr. Eli Sheff drew on her longitudinal study of polyamorous participants and identified four key ways that individuals experienced prejudice and discrimination (4). Aside from lose of friends, family and social connections, a lack of legal recognitions meant that respondents reported losing jobs, housing, and when “parents who are in polyamorous relationships face custody challenges in court, they generally fared quite poorly”.
Not included in Sheff’s findings is the strain that COVID19 has only made more relevant — an inability to include loved ones on insurance or to secure medial access to a loved one at point of care — and the fear of potential physical violence and threats that individuals face when disclosing to a partner about their identity or relationship preference.
(3) University of Cincinnati, Law Review, Vol 79 Is 4. https://scholarship.law.uc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1014&context=uclr