A Whole Lotta Folly About the Term “Poly”
No one likes to admit they were wrong or judgmental, but that’s exactly what this article is about. It’s about how narrow-minded I was about what is, for many bis, a touchy subject: polyamory.
What follows is my personal journey through how I approach that term. It doesn’t speak for everyone in the bi spectrum, and it shouldn’t. But from what I’ve told others both within and outside of the community, they have found a lot to relate to, so I thought I would share my two cents.
Almost from the moment I admitted aloud I was bisexual, the jokes started pouring in. Besides the lazy name-calling, by far the most common follow-up was:
“So then are you into ménage a trois?”
I was seventeen. I had barely had my first kiss (shout out to late bloomers – I see you.) I had just gotten my head around the term “bisexual” to define myself, and now I had to learn how to interpret French?!
Seriously, I knew the term from a heavy intake of non-G-rated movies. Threesomes sounded exciting. And they looked exciting. But they also looked intimidating and complicated. I was wrestling with what to do with not just men, but women, below the belt if I ever got lucky. Adding a third person into the mix felt like going from addition to doing organic chemistry in my head. While balancing on a high wire. Sexually, I was woefully unprepared. And the more and more I heard the jokes, the less interested I was in the idea altogether.
For multiple reasons, I didn’t really start dating until after college. After much encouragement from my friends, I decided to try online dating. I got an OKCupid account, toiled over what details to reveal to a potential new partner, and selected “bi” without much thought.
Within minutes, I got what most bi people experience in online dating – one-word come-ons and many, many, many offers for threesomes. I was shocked. I hadn’t done much exploring or talking with other bis in communities, so I didn’t know people automatically saw me as a unicorn and pounced on me like pixelated prey.
The first offer I remember was for a threesome in Lancaster. Driving two hours to bang two strangers I had never spoken to didn’t seem like a good match (but I still maintain “Threesome in Lancaster” would be a great album title.) Then I heard from a couple that had not only read my profile (and cracked a clever Star Trek joke), but calmly noted they were “poly.”
“Poly?” What’s this term?
Through correspondence and a few links they sent over, I quickly learned what polyamory was – and immediately rejected it. A few months later I was talking to a friend of mine about the discussion who had been a secondary partner. She talked about her first triad with a married couple and how they all joked she was “the chew toy.” This all sounded exactly like none of the things I wanted in my love life. The whole construct seemed, at a glance, selfish, a hotbed for jealousy, and a breeding ground for STIs. Nope – I just wanted one-person-and-only-one-thank-you-very-much.
Then two things happened. My good friend, Sarah, and her long-term partner opened their relationship. And I met my first serious boyfriend. It was a wonderful, confusing time – blissful in the throes of my first great passion and love, but conflicted because I wanted to support my friend, but she was doing something I felt ethically against. But as Sarah explored polyamory with her partner (and talked to me about it), I started to intellectually get the benefits of her relationship, even though it still did not seem like a good fit for me.
Then a few months later, my life went adrift. I found myself without a place to stay and unable to afford rent anywhere in Los Angeles. I took a summer job with my Unitarian church up near Big Bear – which meant I would be entering a long-distance relationship for months. Quickly I looked online for resources about what to discuss with my boyfriend before I moved. I regurgitated the questions without much thought. I felt secure and confident in what his answers would be.
“Oh, one other thing,” I said as we feasted on pizza in his apartment. “Do you want to open the relationship while I’m gone? I still don’t. Still bi but monogamous and all that jazz.”
He chewed before answering. “Yup. All good with that.”
We wrapped up the chat and started debating what to watch on Netflix.
End of discussion. Or so I thought.
Six weeks later I drove back down the mountains to join him at his cousin’s wedding. On the drive home, he admitted he kept thinking back on that conversation, and how now he wanted to open the relationship.
I was so awash with emotions – hurt, anger, fear, jealousy – that I became so quiet it frightened him. I pulled the car off the freeway, said I needed a minute to think, and got out of the car.
He followed me out and, in the dark, we debated what he had said and what it meant to him (i.e. he would find other partners while I stayed monogamous to him.) My driving glasses comically kept falling off my head and onto my nose, mirroring the indecision in my heart. I understood his need and desire to explore, but emotionally … I felt gutted. That I wasn’t enough. That this would be the end of us. That I could even catch sexual diseases if he wasn’t careful.
Ultimately, he said if he was going to lose me over his curiosity, it wasn’t worth it. We made a makeshift peace for the night and I dropped him off, my mind still reeling as I sped back up into the mountains.
We lasted a few more months before he brought it up again. I had gone through enough self-worth attrition by that point I broke down. Fine. I would read The Ethical Slut and consider it. But I couldn’t even finish reading the introduction without my vision getting blurry with tears.
I called my sister, far more worldly-wise in these matters than I was, and explained in a wavering voice what my boyfriend had asked of me.
“Honey,” she cooed. “If you can’t even read about it, how can you possibly live it?”
And in that moment I knew she was right. This was a roadblock we were not going to make it past without completely shattering my heart. I broke it off with him that night.
A few months later, Sarah told me she was breaking up with her boyfriend. I was shocked and saddened, trying to mull over why it affected me so much. Then it struck me: it underscored what I had thought about open relationships and polyamory – they just didn’t work.
Over the next few years, polyamory caught fire within some of my friend circles. It seemed to keep following the same pattern – friends would open their relationship (often as a last resort to save it), declare those who were monogamous were as “not as emotionally evolved,” and ultimately break up. These actions, and my interpretations of them through my own skewed prism, kept compounding my pre-conceived notion of the construct. I kept telling myself the stereotype was true, and got pissed off when people assumed just because I was bi, that I was poly, too.
Then I finally started to seek out a specifically bi community. A place where I could talk about my experiences as a bi person, and where I could hold space for others. And that exposed me to poly people who were happy, healthy, and truly made it work. I met a particularly funny, charming couple who were beautifully open and proud about their relationships. And I met someone who heard my prejudices and gently challenged them one day at a shared event.
We sat out in the hot sun and I started unpacking my experience and shifting my perspective. She helped me realize a lot of things: There are a lot of things in life where it’s a “good for you, not for me” distinction, and for me that included polyamory. She helped me step back from my personal experience with the construct and realize my boyfriend’s take on it was incredibly one-sided. It never would have fostered trust because it wasn’t equal. I had clung to the notion his desire to open the relationship was the sole reason I needed to end it – when there were half a dozen other issues about self-worth and growth. Those reasons were the crux of the break-up – his request had just been the final nail in the coffin. I had cloaked myself in my prejudice like a security blanket, proclaiming those who were going poly were doing it for sexual deviance instead of meeting true emotional and sexual truths and needs.
Through all of those discussions, my walls came crashing down. It was me holding onto those fears, and I had used them as a translator. Not only that, I had been way out of line for deeming others’ relationships less-than or doomed. Why was it any of my business, anyway? Who was I to pass judgment?
Since then, I relaxed my pre-conceived notions and opened myself up to new friends with different constructs. Personally I haven’t really explored “playing” with poly couples or clusters much, but that’s what works for me. I still know for myself – at this point in my life – monogamy is the best fit for me. But to assume if the shoe fits for me, it fits for everyone, is absurd and unfair. There are all kinds of different sizes, styles, shapes, colors that work for different folx, and my baggage and I shouldn’t get in the way of that.
So now when people joke about if I’m poly, I shrug and look at it as a teachable moment.
“Some bis are poly, some bis aren’t.”
“And thank you, but no, I don’t want to get into a threesome with you.”