Scandalous! pulls back the curtain on Polyamory with guest writer Sarah Stefanson.
The definition of polyamory varies depending on who you ask, but essentially it boils down to the practice of sharing love with more than one person. This can mean anything from allowing casual trysts in addition to a committed relationship to a fully integrated triad (or more) partnership that shares a home, a life, and a bed. Polyamory does not mean adultery, since all parties are aware of each other and approve of all activities. It also differs from polygamy in that both partners are expected to take other lovers.
Many people assume that an open relationship model mainly benefits the male of the partnership, since women are generally thought to be more inclined to monogamy and are therefore being taken advantage of in a polyamorous arrangement. In reality, with the chance to recreate a sexual role for herself, the polyamorous woman has unprecedented power and decision-making ability in her relationships. She does not blindly accept the feminine roles that society insists upon. Instead, she takes control of her sexual identity and uses it to further her own goals.
In the sexual sphere, women still have a long way to go to achieve equality. A majority of pornographic movies and magazines portray women only as a means to the end of male sexual satisfaction. While progress has been made in expanding the sexual awareness of women on their own (see last issue’s Sense and Sensuality for a description of how the sex industry has changed because of female influence), little has been done to liberate the sexual woman from labels like ‘slut’ and ‘whore’. There has always been an underground alternative to traditional relationship structures, but even in the swinging community and with regard to adultery, the gender roles are strictly set and women are secondary to male pleasure.
With polyamory comes a definitive opportunity for a true range of choices for how a woman will use her sexuality. Her sexual self does not have to depend on her husband or her lover. Instead, she can determine who she is in this physical capacity by enjoying a freedom to love, or not to, according to her own ideals. The polyamorous woman is allowed to identify her sexual self and feel entitled to pleasure on her terms, without being objectified. In a study titled “Polyamorous Women, Sexual Subjectivity and Power”, the author, Elizabeth Sheff, PhD, states that the polyamorous lifestyle provides women with a real chance to embrace their sexual power in a way that may have eluded them in patriarchal relationship moulds. She calls this process “sexual subjectivity.”
The sexual revolution forever changed how society viewed female sexuality, but to this day, our sexual desire is seen as less palatable than that of our male counterparts. It is generally accepted that as women we enjoy and desire sex, but in order to remain socially acceptable, we have to express our desire only in a committed monogamous relationship. The double standard definitely still exists when sexually open behaviour from men is considered admirable, while from women it is questionable at best. In a culture where multiple partners are encouraged, however, women are empowered to make choices as to who to be with, when and how, without the stigma of being branded a ‘slut.’
In the non-poly world, women are often the most critical of other women’s sexual behaviour. We are frequently taught to be competitive with one another and told that we should stake out our territory in a relationship. If our hard won partner does stray, it will likely be the female interloper who will receive the majority of our scorn and hatred. Many polyamorous women have reported that the lifestyle has brought them unexpectedly close relationships with their fellow females. Once the aspect of competition is taken out of the arrangement, women feel freer to engage one another in trusting friendships. The openness and honesty that polyamory encourages soon eliminates any feelings of jealousy or hostility among women.
For many women, the impetus to beginning a polyamorous lifestyle is their existing bisexuality. In a poly situation, a bisexual woman does not have to choose to be with a man or a woman, but can have the best of both worlds. In fact, a vast majority of polyamorous women identify themselves as bisexual and see polyamory as a logical opportunity to express all facets of their sexuality.
Bisexuality gives polyamorous women a greater variety of partners to choose from than the mostly straight male poly population has. It is also usually much easier for women to find available and willing male partners than it is for men to find females of the same persuasion. This very basic issue of numbers gives poly women proportionally more decision-making power than poly men.
In polyamorous society, there is more emphasis on equality between the sexes when it comes to familial roles, as well. Because women do not feel tied to one person, they are more likely to remain independent socially, financially, and in other important ways. This, in turn, leads to better self-esteem and more relational power. Many women in the polyamorous community have significant financial and cultural resources to fall back on should their unconventional relationship fail.
Even women who are initially reluctant to engage in polyamory and do so at their male partner’s suggestion, often become enamoured with the ease with which they can develop relationships with both men and women in the poly community. By throwing away traditional sexual roles, they are forced to re-imagine a sexual arrangement that truly empowers them and creates an environment of comfort and confidence.
Of course, the same issues that plague monogamous relationships are also present in many polyamorous arrangements. Add to that the stigmatization that many poly people feel from monogamous society and the legal issues that may result from a multiple partner situation, and polyamory becomes very complicated, indeed. Polyamory is obviously not the answer for all women, but many accounts indicate that a rejection of patriarchal sexual mores may be the first step for women who want to achieve full ownership of their sexuality.
This article originally appeared in Cahoots Magazine