Just about everyone is familiar with the term “polygamy,” and for many people it brings up images of Muslim men with four wives, or Mormon men with multiples wives (“plural marriage”), as seen on the television shows “Sister Wives” and “Big Love,” and in news reports. It should be noted that the largest Mormon church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, long ago officially renounced plural marriage as something for this life. It is numerous smaller Mormon denominations that still practice plural marriage.
Not as many people are familiar with the term “polyamory,” or if they have heard about it, they might have a misconception about it. The general definition of polyamory is having a romantic, dating, courting, or marital relationship or engaging in sex with more than one person (not necessarily together), under agreement by all (not cheating). Polyamory and monogamy are alternatives to each other.
Polyamory can involve heterosexuals, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, or people of any sexual orientation, and any gender. So, it could be a man and two women, two men and one woman, three men, three women, etc.
I consider polygamy to be any form of married polyamory, though some polyamorists bristle at the association with polygamy or don’t want official marriages involved in their relationships, and some polygamists bristle at the association with polyamory. Polygamy doesn’t have to mean one man and multiple women (polygyny.) It could mean polyandry (one woman, multiple men), or three or more men, or three or more women, or multiple men and multiple women.
Some people confuse polyamory with cheating, or think it is synonymous with open relationships/marriages, swinging, or swapping. However, cheating is engaging in sex, dating, or romance with someone in a way that violates a prior, existing commitment to, or condition with, another. Not everyone has the same vows or agreements. For example, it is not cheating for a wife to take on another lover alone if her spouse has agreed to it, even if she doesn’t tell her spouse when it happens, as long as that was the agreement between the spouses. An open relationship or marriage is one that is not closed to new participants, whether they are short term or long term participants. Some polyamorists are in closed relationships, some are in open relationships. Swinging is when an established couple, triad, quad, etc. participates as a couple or group in encounters with other couples or groups. It can be a form of polyamory but not all polyamory involves swinging. Swapping usually means when one couple swaps partners with another couple, whether for one time or on an ongoing basis. There are many forms of nonmonogamy, some ethical, some not. Polyamory is an ethical form of nonmonogamy.
The most simple form of polyamory is a “V” in which the person at the angle of the V has two partners, but the people at the ends of the V don’t interact with each other or spend time at the same time with the person who is seeing both of them. There are triangles (triads) in which all three people see each other, either one-on-one or all at the same time. There are “N” relationships, and many other forms of polyamory.
Polyamory does not necessarily mean having more than one sexual partner. It could mean spending time together in other ways normally associated with dating, or living together. It could mean that someone who is into BDSM but has a sexual partner who isn’t has a BDSM partner with whom they do not have sex. When polyamory does involve sex, different people have different agreements. Here are just a few…
“We can each have (insert number here) other partners under theses conditions…” (condom usage, gender, etc.)
“I don't want to know about it.”
“I want to know about it.”
“I want to know all of the details.”
“I get to watch.”
“I want to be with you at the same time.”
“I want to be with both of you.”
"We will all be spouses."
You get the idea. The possibilities are almost endless.
That someone is a polyamorist in no way means that they will have sex with anyone and everyone.
Some polyamorists see themselves as necessarily part of the LGBT (“LGBTP”) civil rights movement, not because LGBT aren’t monogamous (many are), but because every polyamorous relationship involves at least one same-gender relationship, even if only as a metamour.
Equality in relationship rights and marriage necessitates that consensual polyamory and polygamy not only be legalized, but protected from discrimination and persecution. Current inequality in the law is harmful. For example, in the US, is legal for people to have a different sexual partner (or several) every day, have children with multiple other partners, and (in most places) live with multiple partners, but it isn’t legal to be married to more than one at the same time. A man can have children with five different women, but can’t be legally married to more than one of those women at the same time, even if all are agreeable. What kind of sense is that?
Some people are polyamorous as part of their identity, and can’t be monogamous no matter how much they are punished (loss of marriage, loss of money, loss of employment, bullying, etc.) As long as they are with consenting adults, why should their relationships be denied equal treatment? With full marriage equality, fewer people will enter into what it supposed to be a monogamous relationship under pressure to be in the closet, and then hurt the other person.
Most people are not lifelong monogamists. Why it is better to have causal sex with a different person every few weeks or months, or get married and divorced over and over again, with or without affairs on the side, than to have honest polyamory and polygamy? If someone wants or needs monogamy, they should be free to have it; if someone wants or needs polyamory, they should be free to have it. People should be free to choose the relationships in which they will best function.
There are some common objections to the polygamous freedom to marry, and these common objections don’t stand up to scrutiny. See my Discredited Arguments page and my blog entry Lies and Damned Lies About Polygamy.
You can see all most blog entries on polyamory here, all of my blog entries on polygyny here, and all of my blog entries on polyandry here.
Women should be free to choose to be in a polygynous marriage as long as they are as free as men to not marry and to divorce, as long as women are just as free to marry another woman, multiple women, multiple men, or men and women. An adult, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, or religion, should be free to share love, sex, residence, and marriage with any and all consenting adults.
How Nonmonogamists Can Protect Themselves