Is polyamory an orientation or a choice?
When agreeing to write about this topic I think all the Poly Means Many bloggers collectively braced ourselves; we knew it’d be a doozy. To me it harkens back to the decades-old debate we’ve all heard at one time or another on whether homosexuality is a choice OR something innate into which we are born. Consequently it gives me the heebee jeebies; it feels like the basis for an argument about whether someone can have their basic human rights respected and it’s sad to think that could even be part of a debate on my blog. (More on the human rights issue later in this post…) So, to be honest, my answer to this question is “It doesn’t really matter.”
Defining our terms
First, let’s talk definitions. Whenever I’ve seen debates of this variety, people often define sexual orientation as a variety of innate sexual attraction with which people are born. However, the proper definition of it is: “a person’s sexual identity in relation to the gender to which they are attracted; the fact of being heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual.” (Oxford dictionary). (Sadly this definition doesn’t explicitly include queer and other identities, but that’s another post!) For ease of use I would call this a sexual preference based on a spectrum of gender. However within that definition, there is no mention of why/how that preference develops or exists, or indeed the validity of actively choosing to pursue that preference. And significant to this debate as it pertains to polyamory, orientation more generally is a tendency, or direction, relative to something else (usually on some sort of spectrum). Polyamory would not then be defined as a sexual orientation, as it doesn’t pertain to gender preference, but rather a relationship orientation.
Framing the debate and the Missing Piece
The “orientation vs choice” debates problematically frame the two terms as a strict dichotomy: more specifically, that orientation (preference) is the opposite of choice; that it is something into which we are born and cannot change or choose of our free will. Conversely, it’s often assumed that if we have a choice between various options, this means that we are able to make an informed decision to choose a particular option based on some sort of sensible objective rational assessment of our circumstances. Ultimately some people will feel they are polyamorous by choice and/or circumstance, whilst others will feel it is a preference with which they were born, and some will feel it is somewhere in between. It is often not possible to discern to what extent our preferences in life are shaped by our innate temperament, the circumstances into which we have happened, the people around us, or the choices we have made.
Moreover there is an important query missing in these debates, something perhaps wholly irrational and un-objective: that is, “what is it that makes us happy?” If someone is happiest being poly, then they should be free to do so regardless of how/where their preference to do so originated.
Personally, I’ve felt from a very young age that polyamory was the relationship arrangement I was more attracted to than any other. I always knew that I could and most certainly would fall in love with more than one person at once and in fact preferred to do so – not just fall in love but engage in more than one committed relationship simultaneously. I never believed in fairy tales or “forever”, much less a promise of fidelity – or at least, I knew I didn’t want those things. I did, however, dream of having multiple relationships, despite having no exposure to it or models of it. Perhaps it’s no surprise, since I rejected most other relationship conventions from an early age, that I rejected the notion of monogamy as the blueprint for how to conduct my relationships. Polyamory just felt right – it felt more like me than monogamy by quite some distance, even if I didn’t have the proper vocabulary for what I was practising at the time.
I have never had a monogamous relationship; actively practising polyamory throughout my life is a choice I have continuously made. I seek it out or at the very least am always open to it. It is a practice I engage in because it fits me best and makes me happiest – therefore it’s my preference. I know I’m lucky to have access to resources to live out my preference (NB: I’ll save a comprehensive discussion of these “resources” for a different post). Whilst I have chosen to be relatively closeted about being/practising poly, apart from with close friends and within particular communities, I don’t feel my life will be threatened if I’m somehow “outed” as poly (despite it having the potential to create other problems for me). Also, I was fortunate to have a relationship with someone as a young adult who properly introduced me to the concept of polyamory, which means I long ago developed a vocabulary that brought some legitimacy to my relationship preference. All of these opportunities have been privileges afforded to me from circumstance. So, if I hadn’t had these experiences, would I now be actively poly? If I hadn’t felt the preference for polyamory so strongly from such a young age, would I have had these experiences? To what extent I cannot say, because for me it has been inextricable.
Back to happiness
Regardless of how or when my relationship preference for poly developed, I know I would be unhappy and feel like “less of myself” if I chose to live any other way. Even now, when I have just one partner in my life, our agreement gives us the option to engage in other relationships if we wish; that’s a freedom I value incredibly highly because it’s the freedom to fully be myself. The ability to have relationships with people across the gender scale and indeed express my gender in non-normative ways feels similar to me. I have the choice to express these “preferences” or not, but they feel so integrated into part of my identity and my personal history that I would frankly feel miserable if I had to live another way. So, is anything else I could choose really much of a choice at all?
Why we might need a label for poly
As an important aside to this particular exploration, a significant motivation to frame polyamory as an “orientation” is the legal protections this category would afford*. However this could also be covered under “right to family life,” clauses for which appear in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the European Convention on Human Rights. This is potentially more accurate because polyamorous people often consider their multiple partners to be part of their familial structure, and families are generally considered a protected category. However, given that the rights stipulated in these articles are consistently being eroded and questioned under current immigration legislation, human rights discourses and family law, this seems a potentially weaker avenue to legal protection than classifying poly as an orientation. If this erosion stops or reverses, however, “right to a family life” would arguably be the most fitting human rights protection for polyamorous people because forming families is the most accurate description of the preference/practice they are living out.
*As mentioned before, in this case polyamory would be defined as a relationship orientation instead of a sexual orientation, since polyamory is not a gender preference but a relationship preference.
Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each
month six bloggers – ALBJ,
An Open Book, Delightfully Queer,
More Than Nuclear, Rarely Wears Lipstick,
and The Boy
With The Inked Skin – will write about their views on one of them.