Now published here.
António Fernando Cascais
In times of changing sexualities and identity politics, some people are changing the way they define relationships, from sex-related words, and to feelings-related words. Polyamory, meaning literally “loving many”, is one such case. Polyamory makes sex a peripheral subject in defining a relationship, but the original referential is still there: monogamy as a normative institution, against which polyamory stands. Love, here, takes the grand-stand and becomes the fundamental source of difference from other behaviours portrayed as being more sexualized and less about the feelings and emotions. The ideal of polyamory is also closely related to the idea of confluent love and a pure relationship, both concepts created by Giddens. From the analysis of e-mails exchanged during 2009 in alt.polyamory, the first mailing list ever about polyamory (and one of the birth-places of the word), we attempt to analyse the ways in which polyamorists talk about themselves and how they perceive polyamory by welcoming and interacting with newcomers to the mailing list, and how love is understood and conceptualized in here. In denying a more traditionalist and romantic/binary approach to love, a reconceptualization of what love is needs to be formulated and argumentatively supported. Also, since polyamory is portrayed as a more feminist-oriented view of love, gender and gender’s relation to feelings and intimate relationships are also put into question and made problematic in these messages. In all of this, the intelligibility of this new identity and its non-normative aspects interact with different narratives of love, emotion and gender in ways to be explored in this paper.
Key Words: Polyamory, gender, love, non-monogamy, internet, mailing list, intimacy, Foucault.
1. What is polyamory?
Although the adjective ‘polyamorous’ has seen sporadic use since 1953, the word ‘polyamory’ only came about in the last decade of the 20th century, in two very different contexts: once associated with a neo-pagan inspired workshop on relationships, and again as a neologism used to create a mailing list (the first occurrence in 1990, and the second in 1991).
Haritaworn et alia define it as ‘the assumption that it is possible, valid and worthwhile to maintain intimate, sexual, and/or loving relationships with more than one person’. The main point in this definition is that polyamory can be defined fundamentally as an assumption – in other words, as an ideological background or moral bottom-line from which an identity can then be formulated.
Polyamory’s relationship with sexuality, heterosexuality and monogamy is fraught with rupture. As Pepper Mint states, even if the people involved were to remain sexually monogamous or sexually inactive (as is the case with asexuals), the challenge to mono-normativity would remain.
2. Polyamorous ethics?
So, what is the main guideline, in ethical terms, when it comes to polyamory? Well, it is said, jokingly, that the mantra of polyamory is ‘communicate, communicate, communicate’ – this of course raises the question of what has to be communicated, and promptly raises the suspicion that this communication is, after all, just another form of confessional discourse. But, actually, the kind of discourse we find in blogs dedicated to polyamory, in forums and mailing lists, is not so much the typical hierarchical truth-game between the specialist and the analysed (the game of confession works like that: someone talks to a specialist in order to be interpreted and to be told the truth about oneself), but closer to what the Greeks termed the epimeleia heautou, the ‘care of the self’. Within the logics of the ‘care of the self’, subjects necessitate one another to form and develop their own subjectivities, and discourse isn’t a form of decryption, but enacted in search of commentary, of self- and hetero-reflexivity. Both commenter and commented learn from this dialogic exchange. Foucault talks about ‘writing of the self’ as a form of epimeleia heautou, where a friend is fundamental for the subject to constitute himself as such, by using παρρησία (parrhesia), which means frankness. This writing comprises everyday events, the person’s own thoughts and feelings, unlike confessional discourse – it is ethopoietic, it produces ethos, by transforming truth into that very same ethos, empowering the ‘addressee, arming the writer – and eventually any other readers’. Such an attitude has the potential to bring about an ‘intellectual ethics, a letting go of oneself as a form of constant self-refashioning’, where the subject can aim to form a co-incidence between his words and his actions.
In much of this, polyamory seems to be interwoven of several characteristics presented by Giddens as part of the ‘pure relationship’, a relationship that is maintained for its own sake, only while all those involved feel fulfilled by it.
As defended elsewhere, and employing here the four aspects that constitute a moral subject according to Foucault – determination of the ethical substance; mode of assujetissement; elaboration of ethical work; subject’s teleology –, the polyamorous ethical subject is linked to his own honesty or frankness; connects with groups of other polyamorous subjects so that he can constitute himself as a subject; he cares for the self, in order to (from the insider’s point of view) attain more freedom, independence and, ultimately, self-control.
Within this frame, the subject seems, indeed, to be conspicuously without any gender markings. Even so, polyamory can be seen as a form of feminine empowerment in two ways: first, its theoretical background entails the end of the moral double standard that accords men the possibility of having more than one sexual or romantic partner and be seen as more empowered by it whereas it demeans women who do the same; second, it brings to the foreground of discourse (the discourse that should be founded on parrhesia) the topic of emotions, feelings, of the private sphere, beyond the stereotypical rationality that is supposed to dominate male speech. Indeed, if (frank) communication is a corner-stone of polyamorous ethos, then such communication is only possible and effective under conditions of parity – a subdued alterity does not allow for the constitution of the subject. At the same time, this erasure of gender can generate other problems, namely that of invisibility.
3. Methodological approach to alt.polyamory and main results
To collect the data for this presentation, all the conversation threads that related to newcomers presenting themselves where collected for the whole of 2009: a total of 26 threads, containing 2501 emails. From those, 13 threads were randomly selected in order to be subjected to Content Analysis. Due to inequalities in the number of emails per thread, this represented a total of 580 emails, containing 46.448 words. The coding table used was a modified version of the one developed by Keener.
The most frequent categories was one added to the original coding scheme: off-topic. Indeed, off-topic conversation is the single most frequent item in the corpus, in a mailing list that’s supposed to be single-themed (29% of all coded text). Although it is beyond the scope of this article, it should be noted that this ‘off-topic’ is far from irrelevant: it is through it that older members reassert their belonging to the community created there, offering support and giving their opinions about matters that are interesting to them as multifaceted people, not only as polyamorous.
In second place, contemplating 28% of the coded text (almost as much as the off-topic category) is the ‘Honest communication is vital!’ category, reinforcing the importance that honesty (meaning frankness, parrhesia) has within polyamorous discourse.
One other topic that permeates the discourse of those who participated on the debates was that polyamory is hard work – emotional work, scheduling work. But all with a clear goal: to reach a greater level of perceived empowerment. What exactly is the measure of that empowerment? Control – emotional control as it implies control over one’s life, control over the origin of those very same emotions; not necessarily a suppressive form of control, but one that would shape one’s emotions by reflexively (and rationally) analysing them and thusly mastering them. As feelings have power over these subjects, as they feel feelings as something within that acts upon them, so do they search for a way to have power over those feelings. This raises a problem: others might try, also, to control one’s feelings, instrumentalizing them and thus the person to whom they belong – in this sense, mastery over oneself and one’s feelings is also a safeguard against the loss of autonomy due to external malicious action.
The presence of gender and gendered discourse within alt.polyamory isn’t a straight case of inclusion or exclusion. There are several conflicting trends here: some people use the expressions ‘zir’ and ‘zie’, neologisms by corruption of German words, that mean to replace pronouns carrying a gendered weight in English (but this is rare); at the same time, there is a concern for how the gendered social constructs (as well as sexual orientation ones) can affect someone’s take on a relationship. The idea that women are raised to be what is called ‘indirect communicators’ is also present, here, but not as essentialist.
4. Love in polyamory
There is a clear difference in how love is mentioned, between the group of new-comers and the group of habitués. There was never, during the time-frame of the analysis, a discussion solely or even mainly dedicated to talking about the definitions of love, but nonetheless, it was a theme that pervaded many conversations, especially from the side of the neophytes, trying to integrate a new thought structure into their discourse. Matters dealing directly with love where more sparsely commented upon by the regular users, and most of the commentary was of a utilitarian nature, seeking to direct the original poster to a course of action or to reflect upon her or his experiences.
A. The neophytes’ love – negotiating life changes
Context is paramount to understanding the process of talking about love in alt-polyamory. The majority of new-comers share a specific trait: they are, in that very moment, in a situation of non-monogamy which they are trying to cope with for the very first time. Most of the starting emails are lengthy descriptions of what the current situation is, and at the same time a request for feedback or help from the users that are already there.
Marks of patriarchal reasoning (ownership, centrality of male experience) are present still in such discourses. One (self-reported) male user employs objectifying terms when talking about the experiences of a friend of his, with whom we wanted to develop a sexual and romantic relationship. But that depends on him getting to ‘win her over’, referring to his friend. Commenting on the fact that his girlfriend doesn’t mind the idea of another person in the relationship (where ‘another person’ needs to be read as ‘another woman’), he calls her ‘just self less [sic] like that sometimes’.
One other user, that identifies as Sky Marie, has started a relationship with a man that already had another girlfriend – ‘I love him so very much that I changed a lot to be able to be with him’. Love then is a promoter of change or, seen in another perspective, a motive for the subject to sacrifice and modify itself in order to accomplish the obtaining of someone else’s love.
PolyGirl (before, Sky Marie), after a few emails from some of the older users, reflects:
I also feel that he has too much power, in the sense that he *can* make me feel secure, by telling and showing his love. But I also feel that it shouldn’t be necessary […].
He affirms his love for me, but I do think that our love is not equal. He loves me as much as he can, yet I love him more, and while I don’t think more equals better, I think that love has to be equal.
So love is linked to power, and to the demonstration of power: being loved can be something upon which dependence can be built. And as PolyGirl tries to change her viewpoint, still she struggles with quantifying but not quantifying love. Love’s equality is, here, not a matter of quantity (and yet she loves him more), but of quality – how that quality is ascertained is beyond her reflection.
Later on, she muses on the role of society, in relation to how her own views of love are constructed due to social conditioning. She questions those ‘beliefs’ and replaces them with others but, in the meantime, there is an essential kernel that remains the same:
I grew up having a whole bunch of beliefs about love and relationships that I have come to question. I do believe that you can fall in love with more than one person that this can happen simultaneously. […] BUT I also think that essentially, the principles are the very same: love, commitment, trust, honesty…
These sets of ‘principles’ that ‘are the very same’ serve as a way to link the users past experiences and upbringing to the new forms of relationships she’s experimenting with, denying the possibility of a complete rupture or of a substantially different paradigm, and thus to an extent disabling the potential that polyamory brings to question the normative circumstances behind that ‘whole bunch of beliefs’.
B. The voice(s) of experience – love reconsidered
All of these messages got replies, from other users, that are frequent and long-time dwellers of the alt.polyamory mailing list. For example, to Sky Marie/PolyGirl, Stef responds: ‘Loving someone doesn’t automatically mean that being in a romantic relationship with them is a good idea’. So relationships and love are separated, with more attention given to the persons involved, and on how they feel beyond that notion of love.
Subjectivity and its importance is also maintained by the denial of absolutes and imperatives, and by the reaffirmation of the importance of control (self-control, and the autonomization of the self) – again Stef responds to PolyGirl: ‘Not everyone needs every one of their love relationships to be equal. […] Also, be careful to distinguish between degree of love and degree of need.’ Need here, as in the need for the other’s affirmation and reassurance, is framed as a potentially negative thing. The person that needs the most is the person, in this view, that is the least independent, the least autonomous, and therefore the one that might have more difficulties being happy.
C. Specific experiences: the punalua
Even though the possible queerness and challenge that polyamory might (not) posit to normative experiences of love and intimacy, some specific situations do that of their own accord, in confusing (queering?) the distinctions between romantic and non-romantic love, turning love into more of a continuum, rather than a set of poles that might or might not overlap.
The notion of punalua is originally Hawaiian, and has been imported into polyamorous vocabulary, meaning ‘my lover’s lover’. One of the newcomers, CJZslwz, comments her husband’s other love:
[…] I do care for her too. In large part, that is because my husband loves her, and my opinion is “how could I NOT love someone he loves?” […] I have developed my own fondness for her, that is not quite the same as friendship, not quite like a sister, hard to describe. […].
The confusion present in this quote stems from a notion of love that creates some words (and thus brings some modes of loving into existence) while not creating others. ‘Hard to describe’ is then the only position available – the failing of speech that then motivates creative linguistic acts (that’s how ‘polyamory’ was invented).
5. Loving conclusions
So what is there to say regarding Gender and Love? On both counts, there is confusion – confusion as to the role of any of the matters (all in all, conversations of love are peppered around the e-mails, but don’t usually constitute a main topic; conversations about feminism and about the role of gendered experiences in polyamorous life are absent as well, but any misogynous posturing is quickly shot down and even gendered nuances are offered as example), and also confusion at the level of the personal experiences as such.
Emotion is indeed present in this mailing list, as a conversational topic, and as something that needs to be put under control. This very same injunction to control (to autonomy from feelings, in a way) gives this topic an uncertain standing. If, on the one hand, it is not shunned away in favor of a pure rationality (something that our Cartesian cultural frame makes it hard to accomplish), on the other hand feelings are meant to be kept under control, and function in an apparent externality to the subject itself, and so even the fusing of (stereotypically) male and female themes is diminished by this instrumental take on feelings and their relation to how the subjects see themselves.
Gender is, here, a phantasmal experience, a web of presuppositions and, seemingly, lacking self-reflexivity except at the cusp of more confrontational debates, where it becomes a data-point to be taken in consideration. Love, on the other hand, can be both a facilitator of happiness, but also a locus of control loss, of dependency, and something to be managed in relation to subjectivity.
 Daniel Cardoso, «Polyamory, or The Harshness of Spawning a Substantive Meme», trans. Daniel Cardoso, Interact, no. 17 (March 1, 2011), http://interact.com.pt/17/poliamor/.
 Jin Haritaworn, Chin-ju Lin, and Christian Klesse, «Poly/logue: A Critical Introduction to Polyamory», Sexualities 9, no. 5 (December 1, 2006): 518.
 Pepper Mint, «Polyamory is not about the sex, except when it is « freaksexual», 2008, http://freaksexual.wordpress.com/2008/01/31/polyamory-is-not-about-the-sex-except-when-it-is/.
 Michel Foucault, História da sexualidade I - A Vontade de Saber (Lisbon: Relógio d’Água, 1994).
 Daniel Cardoso, «Amando vári@s - Individualização, redes, ética e poliamor» (Masters' Thesis in Communication Sciences, Lisbon: Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas - Universidade Nova de Lisboa, 2010).
 Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the College de France 1981-1982, ed. Frédéric Gros and François Ewald (Picador, 2006).
 Michel Foucault, O que é um autor ? (Passagens, 2006).
 Ibid., 148.
 Cascais & Miranda in Ibid., 25.
 Anthony Giddens, The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love, and Eroticism in Modern Societies (Stanford University Press, 1993).
 Michel Foucault, História da Sexualidade 2: O uso dos prazeres (Lisbon: Relógio d’Água, 1994), 33, 34.
 Cardoso, «Amando vári@s», 63.
 Daniel Cardoso, Carla Correia, and Danielle Capella, «Polyamory as a possibility of feminine empowerment», in Proceedings of the 9th Conference of European Sociological Association (presented at the 9th Conference of European Sociological Association, Lisbon, 2009).
 cf. Cardoso, «Amando vári@s», 54.
 Matt C. Keener, «A Phenomenology of Polyamorous Persons» (University of Utah, 2004), http://www.xmission.com/~mkeener/thesis.pdf.
Cardoso, Daniel. «Amando vári@s - Individualização, redes, ética e poliamor». Masters' Thesis in Communication Sciences, Lisbon: Faculdade de Ciências Sociais e Humanas - Universidade Nova de Lisboa, 2010.
———. «Polyamory, or The Harshness of Spawning a Substantive Meme». Trans. by Daniel Cardoso. Interact, no. 17 (March 1, 2011). http://interact.com.pt/17/poliamor/.
Cardoso, Daniel, Carla Correia, and Danielle Capella. «Polyamory as a possibility of feminine empowerment». in Proceedings of the 9th Conference of European Sociological Association. Lisbon, 2009.
Foucault, Michel. História da Sexualidade 2: O uso dos prazeres. Lisbon: Relógio d’Água, 1994.
———. História da sexualidade I - A Vontade de Saber. Lisbon: Relógio d’Água, 1994.
———. O que é um autor ? Passagens, 2006.
———. The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the College de France 1981-1982. Editado por Frédéric Gros and François Ewald. Picador, 2006.
Giddens, Anthony. The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love, and Eroticism in Modern Societies. Stanford University Press, 1993.
Haritaworn, Jin, Chin-ju Lin, and Christian Klesse. «Poly/logue: A Critical Introduction to Polyamory». Sexualities 9, no. 5 (December 1, 2006): 515-529.
Keener, Matt C. «A Phenomenology of Polyamorous Persons». University of Utah, 2004. http://www.xmission.com/~mkeener/thesis.pdf.
Mint, Pepper. «Polyamory is not about the sex, except when it is « freaksexual», 2008. http://freaksexual.wordpress.com/2008/01/31/polyamory-is-not-about-the-sex-except-when-it-is/.
António Fernando Cascaisteaches at the New University of Lisbon since 1990. He has a PhD in Communications Sciences by that same University, has edited several numbers of the RCL academic journal and published several books. He is currently the main researcher in a project about the visual history of medicine in Portugal.
Daniel Cardoso teaches at the Lusophone University of Humanities and Technology, and is a PhD student at the New University of Lisbon. His Masters’ thesis was on Polyamory in the internet, and he is also part of the Portuguese team of the European project EU Kids Online 2.