One of the struggles we have in polyamory is the lack of terms to clearly describe the roles we play in our non-traditional relationships; of course it doesn’t help that these take infinite forms. Just like any subculture, we coin our own terminology. Polys talk about compersion, which is feeling happiness for our lover’s success with other people — the opposite of jealousy, in a sense. For a while, I was another man’s punalua, which is an old Hawaiian word he’d found which meant roughly, “beloved other lover of my lover.” However, whatever terms we coin for ourselves exist only within our community or the individual relationship; we cannot expect familiarity from anyone else, nor can we fault them for using the words which are available.
I’ve been especially struck recently by how so many of the words people less versed in polyamory reach for are inherently sex-negative on some level, even when the people I am talking to intend them positively. When fans of my blog use words like harem or playa to refer to me or my relationships I cringe a little inside. I’m not calling out any individual here — I’ve heard both words and others like them from multiple people in the recent past and they almost always come couched with a qualifier like ‘Kit is a playa in the good way” or “I enjoy reading about your harem; you do it right.”
Harem seems an especially interesting one because I do like to play games of ownership with my lovers. Pet and I are in an essentially full-time kink relationship. Both Grace & Honey call me by submissive terms (Sir and Maestro, respectively). So why not harem? My negative reaction to this common word interested me; I brought it up on a polyamorous Facebook group that I frequent. Many responses were insightful: one commentator pointed out that the word harem means forbidden in Arabic, and to the people using this word I may seem to be doing something which is forbidden by our society.
What bothers me is that I do not practice the kinds of ownership the word implies. In a classic harem, the women inside were kept jealously from contact with any other men, often guarded by men who’d been castrated. Within the kink scene, a man is sometimes said to be assembling a harem when he is collecting submissives who will all share him, but whom he will not share with other men; the equivalent in women is sometimes called queen bee poly. The control I take from my submissive lovers, or the ways in which I “own” them are only through their agreement. I oversee as much of Pet’s life as I do only because it gives her a sense of comfort and security to hand over control in those areas to me. Were I to try some of these things with Mizz Honey J — such as, expecting to control what other dominants she talks to on FetLife — I’d be overstepping my boundaries and deserve the negative reaction I’d get. The same is just as true in reverse — there are ways I control Honey which Pet would not enjoy. And ultimately, everyone in my poly network is free to seek others and build networks and polyfamilies of their own.
I’m not proposing any more neologisms, just sharing some thoughts about the language of relationships. I’ll continue to accept complements from my friends couched in unintentionally patriarchal, sex-negative terminology, just as I will continue to cultivate my poly family and enjoy the opportunities it provides for education.
For more of Kit’s writing on polyamory, see The Ethical Slut Read-Along.