Guest post: When Polyamory is Too Sexy by Kiki Christie

This week is all about sex in my blog, so I knew I wanted to get some words from Kiki Christie, one of my favorite writers and educators working in the field of alternative lifestyles and human sexuality. In addition to being my coauthor on our long-awaited erotic science fiction novel Honeycutt Tales, she has become quite the mover in the poly scene in the Pacific Northwest. She recently founded the Bliss Factory (Like it on Facebook!) to host events and workshops for polyamorous, open and sex positive people.

As a teacher, activist and host of the recent Victoria Poly Camp, she’s in a perfect position to tell us about the conflicts within our sexual subculture, as she does in today’s blog post.

Polyamory:  It’s definitely about the sex!

Well, sex and poly politics, to be more precise. Even among the brazen vanguard of cultural rebels known as polyamorists, there is divisiveness about what is acceptable and what is not. More specifically, this is a post about self-definition, as individuals and as an alternative cultural group. Interestingly, the pivot point upon which our collective fears and goals within the poly community are spinning (or gyrating, for those who prefer a more titillating metaphor) appears to be: sex.

First (before we get to the sex) a quick and very stripped-down version of polyamory, as defined by me, personally:

Polyamory is the practice of engaging in more than one intimate, romantic relationship at once with the full knowledge and consent of other partners involved.  This definition applies to adults of any gender or sexual orientation.

Kiki Christie, sex educator for the Bliss Factory and guestblogger on Approximately 8,000 Words.

While this definition is agreed upon by pretty much every poly person I’ve spoken to (hence my audaciousness in including it here)  there is a lot of variation in terms of how poly people describe polyamorous practices — particularly sexual ones. To be blunt, there is a division of opinion within the polyamorous world between those who prefer to downplay sexuality and emphasize traditional family values and those who seek to explore and incorporate more alternative sexual practices. Neither of these positions is, I should emphasize, “wrong” or “negative” and I feel that there is plenty of room in the poly spectrum for both. However, as a poly community leader I’ve had some struggles with planning events which will represent polyamory in both an accurate and inclusive manner with regard to sexual norms. In fact, I’ve realized that the only norm within polyamory is, in fact, a diversity of practices between individuals regarding sex and the ethics related to sexuality.

Opinions about what is sexually ethical and acceptable seem to fall, however, into two main groupings: that of poly people who prefer to place strict boundaries and labels on their relationships according to how they relate to people sexually as well as emotionally, and those who would rather have more fluid boundaries and more flexible labels (or no labels at all) for the kinds of relationships they have and the level of sexual involvement they include.

So what, many of you may ask at this point, is the big deal all about? While the State may try to dictate our morality, individually we still do pretty much what we want to do anyway. Aren’t poly people more open than most about tolerating sexual diversity? Well, as it turns out, yes and no. There are many poly-identified folks who feel that casual sexual activities are not for them, and are also not part of the definition of what polyamory should be. On the other hand, many people are polyamorous because of the fact that they enjoy sexual activities like BDSM, swinging and casual sex (often in addition to committed long-term partnerships). Given the current climate of political and legal uncertainty about whether it’s safe to be openly polyamorous, there is considerable fear over public perception about what polyamory is and isn’t. Suddenly, sex becomes a crux for debate within the poly community about what polyamory really means.

Some feel that by “whitewashing” polyamory in the eyes of the public — the popular slogan: “it’s not about the sex” comes to mind — we run the risk of alienating or forcing underground a large segment of the (perfectly ethical) poly population. I’d personally rather begin by introducing polyamory to the general public as the ethical practice of being in more than one loving, intimate relationship with consenting adults and leave it at that. I’d prefer to resist attaching any kind of values or judgments to the basic term “polyamory,” which can and does encompass a very diverse range of relationship styles. Values such as fidelity, sexual freedom, family-centeredness, etc. are only applicable to the way some poly people choose to live. In addition, polyamory itself is seen by many as subversive (and desirable because it subverts heteronormative cultural values).

Others, however, argue that the right of poly families to “live and love in peace” is the key factor in poly advocacy. “Poly isn’t about the sex” indicates that relationship building is fundamental to the greater poly community. Proponents of this position often see a difference between “sex positive” and perceived debauchery when that sexual license goes “too far.”

When I brought this issue to some of my friends in poly leadership roles, I received some thoughtful and personal responses. One person wrote:

One of my partners is adamant that “polyamory has nothing to do with sex.” For him, the norms of polyamory are all about how one does loving, respectful relationships as families, partners, parents, and lovers. He’s very concerned about polyamory falling prey to those who “like” it being countercultural and subversive (exciting!) while we are at the same time working in litigation/media etc to help people see it is actually quite prevalent, mainstream and “normal” but hidden because of laws/culture. It would be too bad if it goes the way of the 70’s sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll with no staying power because of a shift in focus in that direction. Yet, there are also many poly activists and people who are involved in activities and events that focus on sexual activities.

Is there a clash between "family values" and "sex positive" polyamory? Screenshot from Dr. Sex (1964).

Another friend had this to say:

I want to support everyone advocating publicly for multiple issues and identities. Even if those identities might cast aspersions on poly. If we do so positively and professionally, we have nothing to fear. Yes, some will cast aspersions on kink or say it makes poly look bad. Some are gonna say poly is irresponsible. Haters gonna hate. All we can do is carry ourselves well and speak our truths.

I should point out again that all of these opinions come from within the poly community, from people who are living within (self-defined) polyamorous relationships, and who are leaders, event planners, advocates, parents, educators and anarchists in their communities.

I for one am heartened by the depth of discussion about what could potentially be a rift within the polyamorous world. The fact that we can talk to each other about our disagreements without disowning each other as polyamorous is a step in the right direction towards solidarity and social acceptability. After all, if we can’t accept each other, how will others accept us?

Further, oversimplifying what actually goes on in terms of sexual practice in polyamory is in my opinion a detrimental tack to take in terms of educating the general public. As poly people we should strive to be honest and proud of our sexual differences, rather than seek to establish “acceptable practices.” Who has the right to determine what is acceptable and what is not for the entire poly community?

So what can I say about the poly community and sex that’s not divisive? Well, polyamorists talk a lot about sex. We probably don’t have sex much more than anyone else (please, someone do a study that proves me wrong about this!) but I think talking about it makes us pretty cool and it might actually get us a reputation for being open-minded.

Kiki Christie is the founder and facilitator of Victoria Poly 101, a thriving community of diverse individuals who enjoy talking about polyamory and how it fits into their lives in Victoria, BC, Canada. She’s poly, queer and has four intelligent, sexy partners who she loves and talks to and quotes constantly.  She lives with her two teenage daughters and one happy, fat cat. When she’s not working, she knits avidly, reads hungrily, and eats delicious meals with others as much as possible. She’s also the author of Polydexterity, a sex positive blog about relationships, kink and language. She can be reached at theblissfactory@gmail.com.

Comments (20)

  1. Gyesika Safety wrote:

    Balance. I love that these two perspectives are highlighted in this post and at the end of the day I think sexuality is a personal and relationship balancing act, regardless of sexual or relationship orientation. It seems that what is being highlighted in this piece is the pendulum swing that occurs when there is flux and change in a dynamic (including political) and the pendulum does tend to default to the middle, eventually.

    I’ve always wondered about the “it’s not about sex!” attitude. I find this beyond confusing, because even as a monogamous person, I feel that a relationship should be about sex. (Unless one of the participants in the relationship is asexual, a valid and often misunderstood sexual orientation.)I can see the point that polyamory is not *all* about sex (and that distinction can be confusing for the uneducated on poly); however, that statement would be true of most relationship orientations.

    Additionally, purely sexual relationships can have value and teach us a lot about ourselves and others. Sex is a powerful tool and a basic, fundamental need, to deny that strikes me as unbalanced an unhealthy. There will always be fundamentalists of either side (they exist in any kind of self-identified group and to people outside the group, are far more interesting); yet most folks within that self-identity are just doing their thing, attempting to live their lives in a balanced, authentic manner. That will rarely make the news because it’s not as flashy as the extremes. Balance is boring.

    Friday, September 30, 2011 at 1:25 pm #
  2. burgundy wrote:

    This reminds me of discussions I’ve heard in the queer community. There are the people who say “we’re just like you, except we partner with people of the same sex” and the people who call the first group assimilationist and say we shouldn’t be trying to replicate heteronormative models anyway. And I can remember my father (who is gay) wondering if it might have been better to fight for marriage equality *first*, back in the 70s, instead of being so sex-focused. Of course, he said that before anyone ever thought gay marriage was a feasible political goal, and now we’re moving forward on that. Anyway, I don’t think this tension is specific to poly issues; I think any time you have an in-group/out-group dynamic, you’re going to have disagreements over whether it’s better to improve the out-group status by playing up their similarities, or expand the range of characteristics that are considered acceptable. In this case the differences involve sex, which makes it particularly thorny, but I can remember similar conversations in my Reform Jewish youth group. It really does apply across the board.

    Saturday, October 1, 2011 at 10:45 am #
  3. Maeve_Sp wrote:

    It’s great to see somebody actually talking about this. It’s something I’ve seen for quite a while and been a bit afraid of myself. What I do see key is that most polyamorists tend to be sex-positive. Some of them are sex enthusiasts and others not. If we can just stand by the sex positiveness then all should be well, I think.

    Monday, October 3, 2011 at 10:47 am #
  4. Kiki wrote:

    Thanks for the insightful comments, Gyesika Safety and burgundy! I totally agree with what you said about balance AND about the importance of sexuality within monogamous relationships. Ideally, I think sexuality is a relationship-centered issue, rather than a poly or mono one. Another way to look at balance is to view it as a product of flexibility and agility.. which (when it comes to sex) is definitely NOT boring! ;)

    I also really like the comments about in-group/out-group dynamics, burgundy. It’s becomes very political when we try to determine if a movement should bolster popularity through conforming or through subversion. I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from the queer community (of which I’m a member) and I believe that polyamorists have an easier time being accepted *because* of the work queer activists and regular queer folks have done in paving the way towards challenging norms in our culture. I’m proud to be poly AND queer (and if I can be sexy at the same time, even better)!
    Kiki recently posted..The Bliss Factory: New workshops for Fall 2011

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