How to be an everyday poly (and solo) ally


October 11, 2013 by aggiesez

alliesHey folks, it’s National Coming Out Day! Congrats to everyone who’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or queer — you’re wonderful, whether you’re out or not.

Of course, today isn’t solely about sexual orientation and gender identity/presentation. It’s also a day to celebrate being out as polyamorous, open, a swinger, solo by choice, asexual, kinky — and any other way in which you might not quite fit the standard social relationship escalator norm.

National Coming Out Day also celebrates our allies: people whose sexuality, gender presentation, or relationship approaches may not veer much from common social norms, but who also appreciate and embrace the fact that other people do things differently. Love was never one size fits all — and that’s a good thing for all of us.

Allies are people who don’t simply passively accept the existence sexual, gender, or relationship minorities. They acknowledge us. They welcome us. And they’re also willing to stand with us publicly and speak up on our behalf, in order to combat ignorance, stigma, discrimination, and even violence. They treat our lives, preferences and relationships as no less important or valid (or inherently healthy or unhealthy) than their own.

Allies are tremendously important to any minority community, mainly because they generally enjoy social privilege. Because privilege exists. It’s not inherently wrong or evil; it simply is. People didn’t ask for or earn the privilege they have; it’s bestowed upon them by social norms.

But if you do have some privilege — including monogamous or couple privilege — you might as well use it for good.

You don’t have to act like an activist, or be obnoxious, in order to be an ally. This is something you can do in small ways, every day (or on any day, if not all the time). You don’t need to march in Pride parades or write pro-polyamory or anti-couplehood op-eds. You can be an ally in the course of casual conversations and daily decisions, simply by modeling inclusive, accepting behavior.

If you enjoy monogamous privilege or couple privilege and are a poly/open ally, then you have an advantage: Other monogamous/coupled people will probably notice and listen more — and respect it more — when YOU speak up on behalf of ethically non-monogamous people, solo people, and their preferences and relationships! Hearing such inclusiveness from mono or coupled people is more likely to inspire general tolerance and acceptance (and combat ignorance and stigma) than when it’s just poly and solo people speaking for themselves. That’s just how the world works.

DISCLAIMER: This is NOT an “If you’re not with us, you must be against us” situation. I’m not saying that people who opt not to do some/all of the tips below  all the time, or who disagree with some/all of these suggestions, are opponents or bad people. Conversely, neither am I saying that doing any of these things “proves” that you’re an ally.

I’m just saying: If you’d like the world to be a friendlier place for people who have nontraditional approaches to honest, ethical, mutually consensual intimate relationships (specifically poly/open), or who prefer solohood to escalator-style relationships, you can help create that change through small, everyday actions and interactions. You can model the behavior that can clue others in, which helps create a more inclusive society.

Tips for poly and solo allies

Here are some ways you can be a poly/open ally — and a solo ally — in your everyday life, in the real world:

Don’t assume that everyone is, should be, or wants to be monogamous. Try imagining that, say, every third person you know is poly. Your friends, your relative, your colleagues, the cop who just wrote you a traffic ticket. We’re all just people, and difference is a part of life. Monogamy is a good option — and it’s not the only one.

Don’t assume that couplehood or primary-style relationships are universal goals. Couplehood is important to many people. They enjoy — and seek — lifelong, cohabitating, socially recognized life partnerships. But couplehood doesn’t work for everyone, and not everyone wants it. Even people who are in couples may not want to ride the relationship escalator in a standard way — they may never want to live together, etc.

Don’t hypersexualize ethically nonmonogamous people. We are no more or less likely than anyone else to be sexually voracious/indiscriminate, or perpetually sexually/romantically available (seriously, we have lives and limits too!), or seeking casual hookups, or predatory, or willing to engage in deception or cheating (yeah, we’re generally serious about the “ethical” part), or “sex addicts” (which itself is a pretty biased concept — basically, anyone has/wants more sex than you think is “normal”), or even interested in sex at all (many asexual/demisexual people consider themselves poly/open). If a poly/open person invites you to coffee or offers to let you crash at their place, don’t automatically assume they’re hitting on you. React as you would when getting such an offer from any other person.

Don’t conflate love and commitment with exclusivity. Don’t assume that poly/open people, and also anyone who prefers to be solo, are averse to or incapable of deep emotional investment or lasting commitment in intimate relationships. Don’t assume that our relationships and partners mean less to us than yours do to you. Don’t assume that our breakups hurt less because we may have other partners at the time. Don’t assume that exclusivity is required for love or commitment to be “real,” valid, significant, “serious,” or healthy. Remember that plenty of exclusive relationships end up being shallow, fleeting, or unhealthy.

Similarly, when talking about love and commitment with people you believe are monogamous, don’t act like, or talk like, exclusivity and the relationship escalator are synonymous with emotional investment and commitment.

Don’t make the verbal evil eye. When someone mentions polyamory, don’t automatically say, “Well, I could never do that!” Seriously: do you feel the need to react that way when someone mentions that their religion is different religion from yours, or that they prefer a different type of dancing than you do? Unless someone is explicitly suggesting that you, personally, should try polyamory, don’t react as if they’re talking about you. You don’t need to defend or distance yourself from other people’s choices.

Don’t ask, “Can polyamory ever really work?” Let me answer this up front: ANY type of honest, mutually consensual relationship can be healthy and happy — or not. This includes monogamy. It all depends on the people involved. I’m sure you know that, monogamous relationships can be unhealthy, drama-prone, and detrimental, too. The potential for relationship dysfunction is equal opportunity. The main difference is that monogamy enjoys a ton of social, legal, financial, media and governmental support — which serves as exoskeleton, and as role modeling, and as discouragement from developing skills for dealing with diverse relationship types. All of this makes it much easier to enter into, and to stay in, a monogamous relationship.

Maybe you’ve asked this question because the only nonmonogamous relationships you’ve heard about are ones that have had messy breakups. Well, guess what? You probably hear more details about monogamous relationships with messy breakups, too. Healthy relationships are peaceful and boring; people don’t really talk about them much. Sex advice columnist/podcaster/author Dan Savage has a lot to say about why you don’t hear about successful open relationships.

Do take media portrayals of poly/open relationships with a grain of salt. Most mainstream media portrayals of polyamory focus on the couple+ model (implying that it’s mainly done by and for couples), and emphasize rules and hierarchy, or family-style polyamory where everyone lives together in one household. Speaking as a journalist, that’s lazy journalism: writing the story you already know how to write, rather than the one that exists. There has been some fair, accurate coverage of polyamory — but so far that’s the exception, not the rule.

And as for reality TV shows about polyamory: You know the “reality” in “reality TV” is always ironic, right?

Don’t assume that solo = lonely, or antisocial — or that someone’s only solo because they’re they “couldn’t land a partner.” In fact, many solo people (poly, open, or not) are involved in pretty significant, ongoing intimate relationships — just not escalator-track ones. Also, lots of solo people are really happy that way; and lots of partnered-up people are completely miserable.

Don’t assume someone is cheating if you see them out on a date, or being affectionate with, someone other than the spouse/partner you know about.

Don’t ask poly/open people rude questions about their sex life. Hey, if you’re monogamous, guess what? People probably assume that you have sex, too! (Or at least, that you want to — which shows how marginalized asexual people are, too.) Do you want them to ask you about your sex life?

Don’t out people as poly/open. Just because someone has outed themselves to you doesn’t mean they are out in general. Many poly/open people are selectively closeted — they’re willing to be out in some contexts, or with some people, but not others. And they should be the ones who decide when, how, and where they share this information. Poly/open relationships face a lot of stigma and judgment, and get no protection. People do get fired, ostracized, lose housing, lose professional advancement, lose child custody, and more for being ethically nonmonogamous. These risks are very real. You don’t get to decide which risks other people take. But by acting everyday to make the world a friendlier place for poly/open relationships, you are reducing those risks. (Thank you for that.)

Don’t perpetuate or tolerate polyphobic stereotypes and myths. Such as: all nonmonogamous people must have commitment issues, or be sex maniacs, or are hippies, or have low self esteem. Don’t say these things, and — more importantly — don’t just stand there silently when you hear others voice them. Say something. You can be nice about it. You can be gently educational or humorous. Or you can get pissed off if you want to. The point is to let people know those remarks and stereotypes are as wrong, and as damaging, as racism or sexism.

Don’t concern troll poly/open people. This is when you question/criticize/judge someone under the guise of acting “concerned” that their identity, choices, or behavior may cause harm to themselves or others. This happens to ethically nonmonogamous people a lot, and it’s really hurtful, patronizing, and insulting — even when it’s well meant.

Concern trolling is especially damaging when it comes from medical, legal, social services, or education professionals — it actively interferes with people gaining access to services or exercising their rights. Also, it’s common for poly/open people to concern-troll solo poly people.

Not concern trolling people mainly comes down to not asking stupid, biased questions, such as:

  • “Aren’t you worried that you’re more likely to get a sexually transmitted disease?” (Lack of testing, communication, honesty, and safer-sex skills and supplies are what increase your STI risk — not whether you’re monogamous. Plenty of mono people get STI’s — because very few people are 100% monogamous, and because monogamous people are probably less likely to be comfortable with or skilled at safer sex and sexual health communication.)
  • “Aren’t you worried that this is bad for your children?” (Parenting skills do not depend on monogamy. Single parents often get this same kind of concern trolling.)
  • “Don’t you feel like you’re missing out on having a real relationship?” (Nonexclusive relationships are just as “real” and valid as exclusive ones. In fact, you could argue that exclusivity of any kind might be more likely to cause you to “miss out.”)

Do acknowledge that ethical nonmongamy is an option.
When you get involved in discussions involving fidelity, monogamy, and cheating (because most people talk about these issues at least sometimes), mention that ethical nonmonogamy is a viable option. Or at least, don’t avoid mentioning it because other people might think it’s weird.

For instance, if someone is saying how another person is cheating on their partner, you might ask, “Are you sure this is cheating? Maybe they’ve agreed to have some kind of open relationship.”

Don’t believe in guilt by association. Stigma is only contagious if you buy into it. Are you concerned that if people knew that some of your friends, colleagues, family members, neighbors, etc. are poly/open, or that they prefer solohood — or that if they hear you speaking up on behalf of such lifestyles and relationships — then they might assume that YOU could be “that way” too? And that then they might start treating you like you’re weird/dangerous/flawed, and that you could be ostracized, judged, or otherwise suffer as a result? Let that go. You can’t control what others think.

Also try not to decide whether to invite/introduce/include people in your life or events on the basis of their lifestyle. That is, don’t worry: “Well, if I invite that poly/open/solo person to this party, what might people think that says about me?” Rather, consider this: If people were to judge you on that basis, what might that say about them?

Don’t issue “+1” invitations. If you’re holding an event (like a wedding) where seating is limited, simply ask people to indicate how many guests, if any, they want to bring. Don’t imply that people should bring a date (and only one date) — as if attending solo is unwelcome. Similarly, don’t imply that people must choose among their significant others in order to attend your event. Issue invitations in waves, count the RSVP totals as they come in, and issue more invitations until you’ve reached your seating/space limit. Or better yet, build in flexibility to the number of people you can accommodate. Events that only accommodate people in pairs tend to be stultifying.

Don’t ask poly/open people, or people who prefer solohood, to conceal that aspect of themselves. Don’t say, “I’m fine with your lifestyle/relationships, but please don’t mention it to X” (my family, my dinner party guests, my kids, my friends, etc.) If you ever feel someone is inappropriately raising ANY topic (like Walter re Vietnam in The Big Lebowski), that’s a separate issue to address. But don’t assume that your poly friend/acquaintance mentioning their relationship(s) or lifestyles in a casual, non-sexually-explicit way is any more or less appropriate than other people mentioning that they’re married, dating, single, pregnant, etc. And if your family/guests/etc. react strangely to such mentions, you can be an ally by demonstrating through your behavior that consensual, ethical nonmonogamy or a preference for solohood are no big deal. Let your family, etc. deal with their own reactions; you are not responsible for managing them.

Do watch your language. Even poly people fall back on couple-centric and hierarchical language and concepts. Be aware of them, and be willing to catch and correct yourself when you do it.

Do educate yourself about polyamory in general (the Polyamory Weekly podcast especially rocks), monogamous privilege, solo polyamory, swinging (and where swinging shades into polyamory), couple privilege, the relationship escalator, and the perspective of non-primary partners. And share those resources with others!

…That’s my list so far. What would you add? Please comment below. I’ll be revising this list as new stuff comes up, so consider this a living document.

Thanks to the many allies of polyamory, open relationships, and other approaches to ethical nonmonogamy. We really appreciate you, every day, for supporting us in everyday ways.

One thought on “How to be an everyday poly (and solo) ally

  1. Angie Tupelo says:

    Reblogged this on Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History and commented:
    Ooo, good stuff!

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