What is it? is one of several types of posts I have planned for Polyamorous Paganism. I hope to use it to outline the basics of an identity, concept, practice, or act that not everyone floating around the internet may be familiar with. These aren't 100% comprehensive posts, and they aren't infallible. I can only explain my personal views on what a subject is, and I don't speak for the entirety of any community. Additionally, I'm still learning. In many of these communities I'm still a student and in some of them I'm still new. What is it? is only meant to be an introduction to a subject and an invitation to start learning along with me.
I am polyamorous. At one point that was one of the hardest things I've ever had to say to another human being. I've said it online and in classrooms, and most of the time I'm as comfortable mentioning it to a casual acquaintance as I am to an auditorium full of people. I've helped start the Polyamory discussion group for the Fox Valley, although I haven't been able to attend in months, and I'm the go-to activist for any speech or presentation on the subject on campus. I actually get to do two presentations on the subject on the same day later this month, one of them for a class full of freshman. At the same time this was one of the most difficult subjects I've ever spoken to my family about. It has inspired some of the happiest moments I've ever had in relationships. It makes up the root of the first word in the name of my blog.
So what is Polyamory? The word breaks down to "many loves" with "poly" coming from ancient Greek and "amor" coming from Latin. The first instance of the word that I'm familiar with comes from a Usenet group created by Jennifer L. Wesp in 1992, although Pagan priestess Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart uses "polyamorous" two years earlier in her article A Bouquet of Lovers. There is apparently some dispute as to whether the origin of the word rests with the Zells or not although I personally have no opinion on the matter.
In general when it's being discussed Polyamory refers to the practice of having several romantic relationships simultaneously with full knowledge and consent of all participants. In practice this can mean anything from an open relationship (which refers to a romantic relationship and additional sexual relationships) with a possibility of romance developing to a triad of people that are each romantically involved with one another, or one of hundreds of other possible combinations of different kinds of attraction and involvement. In theory Polyamory is more about recognizing that there isn't a specific model for relationships rather than simply expanding the number of possible models. Each couple, triad, quad, grouple, constellation, moresome (welcome to a movement that is still developing a shared language), or relationship configuration (my attempt at a technical term for academic purposes) has the ability to define for itself with input from all members how that relationship should work. What is and isn't allowed inside and outside of the relationship, what is and isn't considered cheating, who wants to know what about other members of the relationship configuration or outside lovers, all of these things get to be discussed openly and with full understanding by everyone involved.
This is an identity most people never run into. There's a lot of stigma surrounding it, there are still very real legal ramifications to having multiple partners if you're out (bigamy and cohabitation laws are selectively enforced but still on the books whenever the state wants them), we're still young enough as a movement that we haven't done much organizing, and other civil rights movements frequently toss us under the bus (although, to be fair, scientists have yet to discover a group of people the Human Rights Campaign wouldn't scapegoat to keep their agenda on track). It's only recently that we've started getting exposure as a movement in popular media. Poly in the Media is a fantastic tracker for this exposure but some major accomplishments in visibility are last summer's action not-quite-blockbuster Savages, Showtime's Polyamory: Married and Dating (reviews here if you have seen it and want to know why sex takes up so much of the plot), and a triad even appeared in season two of the FX phenomenon American Horror Story (in this last instance it's arguable that this is Polygamy, not Polyamory, a difference I'll address in a second and SPOILER ALERT FX treats multi-partner marriage the way CSI treats Transgender people and manages to fit both a murderer and their victim into the same triad within an episode of introducing their relationship).
Since most people don't have a lot of background much of Polyamory is explained in terms of how it's not cheating or Polygamy/Polygyny. I'm going to do it a bit differently but I'll still cover those briefly. First of all Polyamory IS a highly feminist movement and in fact discourages some of the sleazy pick-up tactics that occur in hetero-monogamous dating culture. Without the cookie-cutter definition of what should make a relationship to fall back on Polyamory has to create a culture of consent (Cliff at Pervocracy sums up consent culture awesomely). There have been very few studies conducted on the subject so far but the few that exist show that Polyamory does not have negative effects on children of Poly parents.
Most people that have heard of non-monogamy think of Polygamy (many spouses) and more specifically Polygyny (many wives) a practice found in certain Mormon and Muslim communities and most that haven't heard of it think of cheating. Polyamory isn't exactly either of these things, although there is nothing about it that specifically precludes marriage. While Polygamy tends, if only because of the existing precedents, to refer to one man with multiple women or one woman with multiple men (Polyandry, which is found in some communities in Asia) Polyamory is gender neutral. Constellations may have one men with multiple women, but there isn't a default restriction on those women from dating other men, other women, or each other, or a restriction on the man dating another man as there is in Polygyny. Again, each relationship structure is self-defining. As for cheating, the central difference is that Polyamory is consent based. If your partner knows what you're up to and gives you the go-ahead that is their decision on what is considered to be cheating and what is not.
This more or less wraps up the basics of Polyamory, although like all topics I'll be expanding on it quite a bit as I go on. This will probably be my last post before MBLGTACC tomorrow but I may throw up a short one about the event itself on the nine hour drive to Lansing. If you want to keep up with my adventures there between blog posts be sure to follow me on Twitter.
Update: I should have done this right away but here are a few links to help people interested in Polyamory learn more about the subject.