Critical polyamorist blog
Looking for Love in Too Many Languages…Polyamory? Relationship Anarchy? Dyke Ethics? Significant Otherness? All My Relations?
Despite the fact that the polyamorous community says it over and over again—polyamory is ‘not just about sex’—the monogamously inclined media…cannot get past the fact that sex is a potential component in several relationships. Yet polyamory is by definition ‘many loves’. Sex might be a component and it also might not be….Mainstream media perception and focus on sex as the principle driver of polyamorous relationships, is not only incorrect, but it has damaged the real meaning of polyamory to such a[n] extent that I don’t know whether we can recover the word.
“The Mass Exodus of Polyamorous People Towards Relationship Anarchy"
Postmodernwoman.com (October 5, 2015)
There are many insightful blogs being written on topics that can be understood as “critical” polyamory. They contain analyses that go beyond more common treatments of emotional and logistical troubles related to having multiple, open relationships. Critical poly accounts address complex intersectional politics that condition how we are able to (or not) love openly and promiscuously. (See a selection of such blog posts on my links page.) And when I use the word promiscuous I do not define it as is standard in our mononormative, sex negative culture, i.e. as indiscriminate and random sexual encounters. Rather I re-define “promiscuous” as follows:
PROMISCUOUS, adj. and adv. (OLD DEFINITION)
Pronunciation: Brit. /prəˈmɪskjʊəs/ , U.S. /prəˈmɪskjəwəs/
Done or applied with no regard for method, order, etc.; random, indiscriminate, unsystematic.
OED Third Edition (June 2007)
PROMISCUOUS (NEW DEFINITION)
Plurality. Not excess or randomness, but openness to multiple connections, sometimes partial. But when combined, cultivated, and nurtured may constitute sufficiency or abundance.
Polyamory and Relationship Anarchy
I am edified by what I see as an increase in critical polyamory analyses that address questions such as how can we participate in open relationships as persons conscious of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, disability and other kinds of privilege and marginality. How do we do polyamory in less hierarchical rather than more hierarchical ways? The more rule-bound and couple-centric forms of polyamory, for example, that privilege the (state sanctioned) married, cohabiting, child-sharing couple as “primary,” with additional relationships being “secondary,” seem to me to replicate many of the conditions of monogamy that I find politically and ethically distasteful. I am always interested in analyses that help us envision ways of relating beyond such normative arrangements and beyond Western notions of romantic “love” conditioned—whether we know it or not—by capitalism’s coercive power.
I am an indigenous critic of “settler sexuality,” that is hetero- and homonormative forms of “love,” “sex,” and marriage. Or as Scott Morgensen—whose work established the term—defines it: “a white national heteronormativity [and increasingly also homonormativity] that regulates Indigenous sexuality and gender by supplanting them with the sexual modernity of settler subjects”. In thinking against forms of settler sexuality, I have become intrigued by the concept of “relationship anarchy” (RA). I’ve read several recent online analyses of this term, including one by well-known poly blogger Louisa Leontiades, as a reorienting concept for previously identified polyamorous people. Leontiades, author of The Husband Swap (2015), references blogger Andie Nordgren’s “Short Instructional Manifesto for Relationship Anarchy,” and describes RA as follows:
Relationship Anarchy is a relationship style characterised most often by a rejection of rules, expectations and entitlement around personal relationships. Relationship Anarchists are reticent to label their relationships according to normative expression (boyfriend, girlfriend etc.) believing these labels to be inherently hierarchical but rather look at the content of the individual relationships allowing their fluidity to evolve naturally under the guiding principles of love, respect, freedom and trust. Relationship Anarchy does not predefine sexual inclination, gender identity or relationship orientation.
I am curious about and moved by the concept of “relationship anarchy” (RA). But anarchist thinkers such as the blogger at Emotional Mutation have pushed back against poly folks appropriating the term “relationship anarchy” to help us lessen the perceptional baggage generated when mainstream media presents our relationships simplistically with a “salacious hyperfocus on sexuality.” Emotional Mutation clearly differentiates RA from poly, when they explain that polyamorists will tend to avoid or reject “some of the more radical/anarchic avenues of non-monogamy” that Relationship Anarchist’s pursue. For example:
…Relationship Anarchy rejects all arguments for policing the behavior of one’s intimate partners. ALL of them. What this means in practice is not only No “Agreements” in our own relationships, but also no participation in policing the rules/agreements/contracts of other peoples’ relationships. In other words, Relationship Anarchists are not necessarily anti-cheating.
These descriptions of the RA ethic make a lot of sense to me after three years as an ethical nonmonogamist, one who has made an intensive intellectual and political project out of the practice. As I wrote in my last blog post, “Critical Polyamory as Inquiry & Social Change” (Dec. 13, 2015), I lament cheaters far less than I used to. Rather, I lament the society in which the concept of cheating has so much salience and causes so much pain. “Cheating” is an idea conditioned by what are ultimately ideas of ownership over others’ bodies and desires. Having been "cheated on" long ago before I was married, having been the unwitting dalliance of someone who was cheating, and having myself cheated out of confusion and resistance (I see now) to monogamy, I can say that I cannot tolerate lying. It insults my intelligence. I could not myself carry lies. I confessed quickly. Sometimes the truth hurts, but for me lying hurts more. Cheating comes in part from thinking that lying will hurt less than honesty. Indeed, for some it does hurt less. This is the reality of a compulsory monogamy society in which there are severe social, legal, and economic penalties for breaking the monogamous contract. Those of us who have had the wherewithal to say “I want out” know well those penalties.
But the main reason that Relationship Anarchy intrigues me is my growing distaste—other than consent and safe sex agreements, of course—for relationship rules broadly. Like monogamy, I see fundamental aspects of polyamory to also involve imposing onto relationship categories and rules forged historically to manage society in hierarchical ways and which facilitate the coercive work of colonial states that always privilege the cultures and rights of whites over everyone else, the rights of men over women, and the rights of the heterosexuals over queers. Of course, state-sanctioned, heterosexual, one-on-one, monogamous marriage is tied to land tenure in the US and Canada, and helped bring indigenous and other women more fully under the economic and legal control of men. Polyamory only partly challenges settler sexuality and kinship, including marriage, in seeing ethical love as not being confined to the monogamous couple. But as I’ve written in an earlier blog post, “Couple-Centricity, Polyamory, and Colonialism” (July 28, 2014), it still often in practice privileges the married couple as primary, other relationships as secondary, and continues to invest in couple-centric and often nuclear forms of family that are deeply tied up with colonialism. Ethical nonmonogamy in the US and Canada does not do enough to question these settler forms of love, sexuality and family. Although to be sure, there are ethical nonmonogamists who do their best to loosen the strictures of settler family forms to the greatest degree they can in a society whose laws thwart alternative families, including indigenous and queer families, at every turn.
Dyke Ethics and an Indigenous Ethic of Relationality
In addition, and not unlike monogamists, nonmonogamous people also often privilege sexual relating in their definitions of what constitutes ethical nonmonogamy, or plural loves. Might we have great loves that don’t involve sex? Loves whom we do not compartmentalize into friend versus lover, with the word “just” preceding “friends?” Most of the great loves of my life are humans who I do or did not relate to sexually. They include my closest family members, and also a man who I have had sexual desire for, but that is not the relationship it is possible for us to have. I love him without regret. We have never been physically intimate. Is this somehow a “just” friends relationship? I do not love him less than the people I have been “in love” with. Might we also not have great and important loves that do not even involve other humans, but rather vocations, art, and other practices?
I am coming to conceive of ethical nonmonogamy in much more complex and fluid terms than even polyamory (yet another form of settler sexuality) conceives of it. There are certain queer relationship forms that my evolving vision of relating resonates more closely with. In her forthcoming book, Undoing Monogamy: The Politics of Science and the Possibilities of Biology, University of Massachusetts feminist science studies scholar Angela Willey articulates a broader sense of the erotic than is reflected in both monogamist and ethical nonmonogamist (i.e. polyamorist) sex-centered ideas of relating. Briefly, Willey defines the erotic in conversation with black lesbian feminist writer Audre Lorde and her idea of joy, “whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual.” Joy can involve humans and nonhumans, including entities and concepts not considered to be alive in a typical Western framework. The sexual and the romantic may be present in Lorde’s and Willey’s concept of the erotic, but they have no special status as a form of vital connection. Music, love of one’s work, satisfaction in building something, making love to another human being, artistic expression—all bring joy and fulfillment and are forms of eroticism. This can help us envision more expansive forms of connection and belonging beyond those produced by monogamy and nonmonogamy, and their sex centered understandings. Not that sex isn’t great for many of us, but it’s not been great for everyone. Nor do some people care to have what we call “sex.” Not all loves involve sex, even between partners. That should not diminish the veracity of love, commitment, and relating when it is the choice of both/all partners to not include sexual relations. The concept of erotic at play here does not hierarchize relationships according to the presence of sex, or the kind of sex. Willey is especially attuned to the loves and relating of queer subjects, “dykes” in particular, in whose circles she reads deep values of friendship, community, and commitments to social justice. And while sex and coupledom are present they are not uniquely centered. Willey’s observations are complementary to what I am calling an “indigenous ethic of relationality.” I am working to articulate a conceptual framework of relating with not only my human loves—sexual and not, but also with indigenous place, and with different knowledge forms.
What is “Love” Anyway? Becoming (Partially) Together?
All of this musing on plural, expansive mutual caretaking relations brings me back to this concept of “love,” which we throw around a lot in English.
Since I moved 2400 miles north to Canada from the American south last summer and left behind a wonderful friend and lover—FB (short for Firefighter Boyfriend), I’ve had time to reflect on our way of relating for the 14 months we were in close contact. FB models the kind of relatedness—a kind of “love” one could call it—that I am moving toward. It is not quite polyamory, nor Relationship Anarchy. I don’t yet have a name for it. FB is always there for me, even when he is not here. We never saw each other more than once every 2-4 weeks, usually for a weekend at a time. But I saw him enact a kind of distributed web of faithfulness that is rare, at least in US American culture. FB attends to his many loves: his children, his parents and sibling, sometimes his previous lovers. He attended to me and to M and to R, his other partners during our time together. He attends to his athletic training partners. He attends to his friends since childhood. He attends to his work, which he takes very seriously. He attends to these people and practices with his heart and his physical being. He does work for people as part of attending to their complex human needs. He fixes cars, fixes things around the house, and for a few of us he attends to our bodies in sexual ways. He continues to check in with me though we are separated by thousands of miles. He even checks in with my child occasionally. I will always remember the day he accompanied us to a speaking gig I had in a town 100 miles from home. He tied his camping hammock from a tree on the university campus, and my child swung in it while FB played guitar and sang Johnny Cash songs to her so she wouldn’t have to be bored at my talk. He is filled with energy to attend to his many relations. While he helps nourish community far beyond his nuclear family, his children too are raised in community, with not only him but by extended family.
I remain in relation with FB, although often now by messaging or Skype. I continue to converse with him, to learn with him. He is not indigenous but he gets it—at least the human side of this ethic of relatedness, a 21st century articulation of “all my relations,” that I work to live. I never told FB that I loved him. I was still defining love when we were together in the same city according to a couple-centric, probably more escalator-like definition, which FB and I were not ascending. Monogamous conditioning is probably like an addiction in that one must always be vigilant to its hunger, its willingness to help one cope or make sense of life. Though I work daily to gain nonmonogamy skills and to put down long- conditioned monogamous responses, I accept that it may always live inside me. I need the support of other nonmonogamous people who like me are in recovery from a colonial form of monogamy. Because I keep working at it, I am more skilled than I was a year ago in spotting monogamous responses in myself. I see that I was mistaken when I did not tell FB that I love him when I saw that I had his consent to share those words. In fact, we were enacting it even then. I understand now that love is not only feeling, but attention and willingness to caretake, even partially. Sometimes this includes sex. Sometimes it does not. From here on out, I will be more careful and thoughtful, yet more generous in my use of the word “love.”
When we caretake, it must also include ourselves. FB attends to himself. He knows that he needs to replenish. He is also not afraid to ask others to attend to his life. Being in relation requires doing and asking. This is because we cannot do everything for ourselves, or for others. As tireless as FB often seems in his efforts to be in relation, he is also always clear that he cannot be everything to anyone. Along with him I learned that faithful attention to one’s loves requires not submitting to the myth that partners can “complete” or make each other whole. I have come to think that asking for that is not fidelity, but betrayal of oneself and one’s lover(s), thus the point of a broad, strong network of relations. We can only manage the heavy work of sustenance in cooperation with one another.
FB and I have engaged in what Alexis Shotwell (after Donna Haraway) calls a form of “significant otherness.” Haraway refers to “contingent, non-reductive, co-constitutive relations between humans and other species” as she theorizes more ethical human relations with and responsibilities to the nonhuman world. By co-constitutive, Haraway refers to how we shape and make one another. We become who and what we are together, in relation. Taking Haraway’s reformulation of “significant otherness” as also a way to “talk about valuing difference,” Shotwell applies this relational ethic to her own analysis of polyamory practice: “significant otherness points towards partial connections, in which the players involved are relationally constituted but do not entirely constitute each other.” She also draws on Sue Campbell’s analysis of “relational self-construction”—the ways in which “we are formed in and through mattering relations with others…how our practices of being responsive to others shapes the kinds of selves we are.” 
How does this play out on the ground? Through specific relations with FB, for example, in concert with my intellectual relating with theorists cited here (Campbell, Haraway, Lorde, Morgensen, Shotwell, and Willey), and with indigenous ways of thinking relationality, I can now articulate “love” in a more complex and considered way than I had before. I have learned through nonmonogamy practice and reflection on that practice—aided by feminist, indigenous, and queer theorists—that one becomes together differently with different persons, phenomena, and knowledges. This happens on material and social levels simultaneously. Different bodies and desires fit together differently, thereby shaping different sexual practices and facilitating different sets of skills. New desires and pleasures (sometimes surprising!) are biosocially constituted. Different personalities and social ways of moving in the world help us partially re-socialize one another. With the aid of lovers past and present, including intellectual and other loves whose actual bodies play less to no part in our intimacies, we are ever becoming.
I began writing this post before Valentine’s Day, but life interfered and it took me a while to get back to it. But in that spirit, I leave you with a blessing: May your loves and relations be many, and not caged within settler-colonial norms of rapacious individualism, hierarchies of life, and ownership of land, bodies, and desires. I hope that every day you are able to spend time with some of your loves, whoever they are and in whatever relationship form they take. I wish you health and connection in 2016.
The Critical Polyamorist
 Scott Lauria Morgensen. “Settler Homonationalism: Theorizing Settler Colonialism within Queer Modernities,” GLQ: A Jouranl of Lesbian and Gay Studies 16(1-2) (2010), 106
 Angela Willey. Undoing Monogamy: The Politics of Science and the Possibilities of Biology. London and Durham: Duke University Press, 2016 [forthcoming].
 Alexis Shotwell. "Ethical Polyamory, Responsibility, and Significant Otherness." In Gary Foster, ed. Desire, Love, and Identity: A Textbook for the Philosophy of Sex and Love. Oxford University Press Canada: Toronto (forthcoming October 2016), 7.
During the past fourteen months of my iterative commitment to polyamory, one question occasionally troubles my mind for difficult hours. In the midst of my gratitude for what I have in a world of hardship and sorrow, I grow sad for a time and struggle with this predicament: Am I pursuing polyamory because I have given up hope of ever finding a person so compelling and compatible (and available and in the same country!) that we could remain committed to one another for the rest of our lives? This is the main question I return to time and again, and my chief struggle in polyamory. Am I taking the easy way out? Trying to avoid vulnerability? Disappointment? Commitment and compromise—the hard work of fidelity to another rather than just myself?
In the moments of struggle I also sometimes wonder if I am just too like my parents, neither of whom were able to sustain lifelong romantic partnerships. My life is richer with nurturing and opportunity than theirs were, but I share their propensity for travel and migration. They were both workaholics, both running from but also always returning home. I have come to see their migratory practices as not wholly dysfunctional but as a productive act of survival. And they just crave the road. So do I. Too bad poly wasn’t a viable choice for my parents in their non-privileged mid- to late-20th century middle America world. Maybe both of them would have had more success in love, felt less like failures or oddballs in that regard. Their serial monogamy and that of my extended family members over the course of decades did none of us much good. I saw more than my share of failed marriages and dysfunctional couple relationships. It is sad to remember so much unrealistic idealism and expectations that could never be fulfilled coupled with controlling, dishonest, and disrespectful behavior of men towards women, sometimes of women towards men, but most of all the collateral damage to the children involved. Our struggles were clearly shaped by oppressive colonial institutions that deeply damaged Native American families and communities for more than a century. I see now that there was little possibility of living up to the successful nuclear family ideal. On the other hand, despite colonization, we are still accomplished at cultivating networks of extended family—biological, adopted, and ceremonial—and that makes me proud. And it is probably a key reason that I find myself drawn to this non-Native American practice called polyamory. In its ideal form as I imagine it, poly can help build extended family that includes but goes beyond the restrictive bonds of biology.
Whatever the history that brought me to here—whether it is family- or culture-specific, a result of colonial history, or a fundamental human condition (some like to argue that non-monogamy is biological nature), whether it is nature or nurture or both—every time I enter the space of struggle over poly versus monogamy, I walk out the other side still committed to polyamory. I am certain that even were I to find “true love” again (I think I’ve felt that at least twice in my life), I’d find myself back here in a few years, facing a choice to open that relationship. For I no longer believe that it is realistic or fair or ultimately loving to myself and to my partner to command that each of us legitimately long for and be only with one another. I am also coming to believe as I weigh healthy and honest monogamy against healthy and honest polyamory, neither is any more or less difficult. They both involve considerable emotional work, ethical commitment, the courage to be vulnerable, good communication skills, compassion and withholding judgment. In other words, neither set of practices, if they are to satisfy on multiple levels, allows us to slack. I must therefore decide how to live, love, and desire in the way that seems to best fit me, and I am fortunate to have the resources to do that. While my ethical and analytical head always chooses polyamory, my heart is still deeply conditioned by the romantic and illusory ideal of safety in monogamy. And my body wants what both can offer: connection. In this struggle, I often let my head lead the way, which helps remake my heart. My heart, in turn, prompts new analyses. This blog is part of that.
Only fourteen months after embarking on the path of poly, I find it hard to remember its origin. How did I find the path’s beginning? How long did I ponder it before I started walking? I surely must credit the influence of queer thinkers, some of whom are my friends—both their analyses and the fact that more frequently than straight people they practice ethical non-monogamy. Although queers less often label it polyamory. That label seems to be more the domain of straight people. I know that I did not buy the poly self-help books until after I’d made the decision to try and de-program myself from monogamy. And I know that it is not something I considered when I made the decision, three years ago, to leave my marriage to a stellar human being. But it was marriage itself that had always felt like an ill fit to me. And I worried about the effect that growing unhappiness would have on our child. But still I was committed to serial monogamy back then. I believed I just had to find the right “one” and everything romance-wise would fall into place. But that did not happen. I tried for a couple of years once I felt my heart open up again after I kept it closed in marriage. But for various reasons opportunities with people I could imagine spending a life with appeared, and then faded. In my age, education, and class range, I meet too many potentially suitable matches who are still tangled up emotionally, psychologically, and financially in monogamous relationships, many of them troubled or unsatisfying. And those who are single are often scarred by their previous committed relationships gone terribly wrong, yet many are still committed to a monogamous ideal. Others see themselves as sexual and emotional mavericks who reject commitment and embrace non-monogamy, but without the openness and extreme level of communication that is a hallmark of the poly ideal. These types are an especially bad fit for me. Like them, I may have early on viewed non-monogamy as a way to have smaller, more manageable connections in the face of “true love’s” absence and in the face of competing commitments, such as work. Work comes first. It not only helps support my material well-being and that of my child, but it is through work that I enact my ethical and political commitments to this world. My work is my spiritual practice. My commitment to egalitarianism further complicates my ability to live up to that idealized form of romantic commitment in our society, monogamous marriage. I am not following anyone around, and I don’t want anyone sacrificing their path to follow me. But unlike the anti-commitment mavericks, I don’t want to reject love and meaningful attachment to other humans in the form of romantic relationships. To be sure, I’m nervous of the pain they can bring: but I know I want it. I am like this in friendship too. I crave platonic ties that enfold love and intimacy that will last to our dying days. Ultimately, being non-monogamous does not free me from the work and emotional risk of love and commitment. Rather, it re-shapes what love and commitment (can) look like, requiring me to negotiate them with multiple partners instead of one. Poly can also sometimes blur the boundaries between platonic and romantic love. A caveat: I’m not knocking sex for the sake of sex. For some people that is what fulfills them. It is not sufficient for the intimacy I crave.
Routes after Roots
I had an epiphany a decade ago that rootedness in one place—finding that one true geographic home—will never be something I can find on this planet. What a relief to realize there is no one true place for me, and that there is nothing abnormal about that feeling. I could stop feeling like a failure, fickle, a commitment phobe, like travel is just running, like I was doing it all wrong. Along with that realization, came the knowledge that standing still too long has its own ethical risks—complacency, eclipsed vision, and judgment. I must be regularly challenged on the borders of different worlds, always living in translation. Yet after the decade-long sense of disconnection I could never overcome living on a mountainous coast—on land that moves but under skies that are still—I realized that I need to spend more time on flat, expansive land. If not in the spot where I came into this world in human form, it had to be something like it. This land where I live now is warmer than my birthplace, but still the skies are tumultuous, breathtaking and life giving. And I need rivers like I need the roads and the skies. Rivers are the lifeblood of my historic, metaphoric, and literal topography. I grew up near rivers. They symbolize for me leaving and returning in a regular migratory pattern. They are movement and place simultaneously. Like me, like my parents before me, and historically my migratory ancestors, rivers are routed. I live on the banks of one now. Luckily, my work also enables me to travel and to stay periodically in place. I am rewarded for my skills at translation between literal and technical cultures, between conceptual languages. Travel enables me to co-parent my child who lives with my ex-husband during the school year. As soon as I found it, I embraced the knowledge that I am at peace only living en route, leaving for different and challenging far-off lands, then returning to expansive plains and skies, a more tolerant, thoughtful, and grateful person. Routedness, not rootedness, allows me to lead an ethical life.
But what of relationships? How could I hope to find someone who can live such a life with me while having their own life? I am fortunate to have encountered a few (potential) romantic partners of whom I was enamored and could take anywhere: curious, tolerant, adventurous, grounded intellectuals who like me come from humble economic backgrounds. Individuals who share my lenses and could grow with me in travel. Yet for a variety of reasons, most of them were ultimately unavailable. But even if one had been available, would I have nonetheless eventually faced the choice of polyamory? Yes, probably.
For not only am I routed through different lands, but I am routed in my work. I am fidelitous to multiple institutions and technical tracks. I attribute this second form of routedness also in part to my mother and to the life she created for us as children. She also craves diversity in social relations and from her I learned to build and cherish a stunningly diverse community. It spans many classes, races, nations, technical specialties, levels of ability, sexual and political orientation. I need diverse people with their multiple worldviews and their different knowledges in order to make sense of the world. My family, friends, colleagues, and lovers will often not be comfortable in one another’s presence. But this is the challenge and the existence I crave and which satisfies me: to be continuously routed geographically, conceptually, and intimately.
Again, polyamory is for me an intellectual, political, and emotional project all wrapped up in one—each aspect re-shaping the others. But since I am more accomplished at the intellectual than the emotional, I sometimes lean harder on my analytical abilities and my political commitment to non-monogamy to strengthen my resolve to keep navigating the challenging social, moral, and cultural landscape that is poly. If I want a home there, I must help build it. Just like there is no perfect one true love out there waiting for me, just like I have to create and nourish democratic relationships and knowledges, so must I nourish and help constitute the diverse and democratic poly world I want to live in. In the end, polyamory is not only intimacy constituted by love and sex, but fundamentally by openness to multiple connections. It involves emotional, intellectual, and physical plurality rather than “promiscuity,” which is usually negatively defined as entailing a casual, transient, and indiscriminate approach to intimate connection. But the plurality of polyamory can equally be understood not as excess or randomness but as openness to multiple complex connections, some of them not as complete as one might require in monogamy when you can choose only one person. But when they are combined, cultivated, and nurtured, multiple connections constitute sufficiency, and sometimes abundance. The ideal of polyamory requires an honest recognition that life and love are ever in flux. Too often the ideal of monogamy tells us to deny this. It lulls us into thinking we can get things settled, that we are ever safe and secure in our one true relationship. Polyamory does not let us rest in this idea. In its best form, poly leads us to abundance, negotiated and built through work and care. It takes us beyond that sad and debilitating world in which fear of scarcity and deprivation dog us into a severely circumscribed set of choices that we then think we need to live with for a lifetime. Monogamy can be better than that of course, but often it is not. With polyamory as a legitimate choice, I wonder if our standards for and skills with monogamy would improve as well?
The Critical Polyamorist
 I owe this language that helped me to understand what I have long felt to James Clifford as he articulated these concepts in his book Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.
WARNING: This may be the unsexiest blog post on polyamory you will ever read.
In my first blog post, I introduced The Critical Polyamorist as a project in which I aim to explore the politics of being a minority—a tribally-identified Native American—within the already minority polyamory community in the U.S. I bring critical social theory to analyze the politics of race and culture as they play out in the poly world I inhabit in my mid-continental city.
In addition to the lack of race or cultural diversity in explicitly polyamorous communities, I notice that poly people disproportionately engage in certain cultural practices including neo-paganism. In fact, the popular slogan “Polyamorous, Pagan and Proud” can be found on t-shirts, coffee cups, and bumper stickers. A brief description of pagan demographics in the U.S. will demonstrate that this is not mere subjective observation, but something related to structural issues among polys. Speaking as a Native American, noticeable participation in paganism among polys is something I find a bit of a turn off. I’ll explain why shortly.
Contemporary pagan movements are re-articulations of the new and the old. Influenced by pagan practices of a pre-modern era in what is today Europe, and as understood through folklore and anthropological sources, they add modern interpretations and innovations. As opposed to the one-God religions that dominate in the U.S., and which tend to hold humans above lower species, paganism features beliefs in multiple deities (polytheism) and animistic thought in which nonhumans, including those not usually understood to be living, have a spiritual force. Paganism in the U.S. dates to the late 1960s and has historical ties with the rise of polyamory. Multiple academic and self-help sources on polyamory note the overlap between poly and pagan communities. On my city’s various poly listservs and Facebook pages I often see cross-postings for pagan and other New Age events.
Pagan Demographics and Race in the U.S.
I have seen it written that poly people are more likely to identify as pagan because both communities are populated by similarly liberal-minded people. Fair enough. But what attracts certain liberal-minded people to paganism and not others? Are there perhaps some racial differences? Indeed there seem to be. A quick Google Scholar search yielded no academic sources on the intersections of contemporary paganism and race. However a visit to the Wikipedia page on “Modern Paganism” yielded numbers that accord with what I’ve seen in my poly world. The “Socio-economic breakdown of U.S. Pagans” is as follows:
81.5% with university degrees? That’s a highly educated lot. Contemporary pagans are represented in statistically significant numbers in urban, suburban, and rural areas, but the numbers on “ethnicity” among U.S. pagans are not at all diverse.
Surprised by that Native American number? You should be. The Wiki page explains that “Based on the most recent survey by the Pew Forum on religion, there are over one million Pagans estimated to be living in the United States.” In turn, this number means nearly 90,000 Native American pagans. But according to the 2010 U.S. Census, we Native Americans (self-identified that is, not tribally enrolled, which number about half of the self-identified population) number 1.7% of the U.S. population, or roughly 5.2 million. Given the pagan self-identified numbers that would mean that 1.7% of self-identified Native Americans identify as pagan, or 3.4% of the tribally-enrolled. I am dubious. I have lived and worked in many indigenous communities across the United States and a little bit in Canada too—both rural and urban. I have never met a single indigenous person in any of these communities who identifies publicly as “pagan.” NEVER. On the other hand, I know multiple North American indigenous folks who explicitly identify as poly, or did at one point in their lives. Never say never. There might be a few folks out there from tribal communities who identify as pagan. But 90,000 of us?
Despite my never having met a Native American pagan in the flesh, I am actually not surprised by that 9% number. Most of those “Native Americans” are very likely white folks who, without that inflated Native American number, actually constitute the vast majority of pagans—probably over 99%. Why do I say this with such certainty? White folks in the U.S. find it pretty easy to identify as Native American. Race works in the U.S. largely according to a divide between black and white. About 100 years ago the black/white divide was strengthened by the disappearance of red as a separate and nationally meaningful race category. The shifting politics of race after the end of the Indian Wars in the late 19th century and after several hundred years of massive declines in the indigenous population through disease, dispossession, and massacres allowed European-Americans to absorb red into their own race. Federal Indian policy and anthropological theory in the 19th century advocated “killing the Indian and saving the man.” Through interbreeding with whites it was thought that Indian blood could be diluted over the generations. The Indian could—and, most policy makers believed, would—become white. In addition, various cultural assimilation programs designed to break up tribal communal practices and thinking and actual land-based tribal communities persisted in U.S. federal policy through the 1960s.
On the other hand, blackness was defined in terms of its ability to contaminate the white body. This kind of thinking undergirds the notion of hypodescent or the “one-drop rule” in which children of mixed unions—that is their parents come from different racial or ethnic groups—are automatically assigned to the socially subordinate group. This is why, despite his white mother, President Obama is automatically classed as black in the U.S. One can certainly identify as mixed-raced in the U.S., as some have identified the President. However, he or any other African-American would be hard pressed to identify as white and have that legitimated across a broad spectrum of our society. On the other hand, those who identify and are identified as White might claim to be descended from Mitochondrial Eve in Africa, but they rarely claim recent African ancestry. Yet they can very easily claim to be Native American and not undercut their identity as white, or the widely accepted racial definition of white, i.e. not black. Remember the controversy surrounding U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and her never documented Cherokee ancestry? She never denied her simultaneous identity as white.
Native American, Poly, and Leery of Neo-paganism
In addition to over-reaching claims to Native American self-identification by a not-insignificant minority of white pagans, I am leery of paganism in my poly community for reasons having to do with my commitments to Native American rights to religious freedom. These include the rights to have our ceremonial practices not appropriated to benefit folks outside of tribal communities.
Those who are socially unfamiliar with U.S. Native American communities might see an easy alliance between neo-paganism, other New Age practices, and various tribal ceremonial practices. However, core values in neo-paganism are strikingly different from those informing Native American ceremonial practices. Native people might in theory support non-Natives seeking spiritual paths more satisfying than the individualistic, hierarchical, rigid doctrinal, and human exceptionalist forms of mainstream religions. But at the same time most of the Native people I work and live with from across the U.S. and Canada are weary of forays into our cultural worlds when they have not been invited in nor therefore had the opportunity to learn proper decorum or protocol. Folks choosing—and yes, it is a choice—to appropriate certain tribal practices, e.g. sweat lodge or vision quest should know that they do so with our disapproval. Indeed, such actions reveal how little they have left behind the individualistic, universalizing, human-centric core values of the mainstream religions and cultures they reject, i.e. many forms of Christianity. Tribal practices are not simply available as resources to anyone seeking spiritual fulfillment. Unlike Christianity, ours are not generally proselytizing traditions and individuals don’t simply get to make choices about their spiritual path. We do that in community.
Stanford anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann, who studies religions and mental experience, notes other interesting similarities between evangelical Christianity and paganism. She describes a shared “childlike wonder and fairytale romance” with either “an ancient magic in the earth itself” or Jesus/God as the case may be. At the root of this is “an attempt to make real what these practitioners fear may not be real.” They are trying to “experience the supernatural as real despite awareness that other, sensible people presume that it is not.” These types of religion emerge in secular societies in which “most people might claim to believe in God, but in which atheism is a real social possibility and in which the social presumption is that religious belief is a personal choice…one possibility among others.” These are opposed to those societies in which there is little possibility of not believing in God (or some greater power?) I submit that Native American tribes are these latter types of societies. Luhrmann takes special note of the “famous Reclaiming coven” in San Francisco led by Starhawk (Miriam Simos). She describes it as “perhaps the largest, best organized, and politically most effective of North American pagan communities. Reclaiming prides itself on its individualism and its fluidity and creativity.” Luhrmann notes a “poaching” that goes on in paganism, i.e. a picking and choosing of practices without necessarily adhering to a convention or tradition. She also observes in Reclaiming a sense of “let’s pretend,” “let’s suspend disbelief” thus helping pagans to construct faith in the face of rational secularism. To the contrary, I have never been in a tribal ceremonial space where anything was pretend or playful. We don’t just make it up. Nor, to put it as Luhrmann does, do we poach the practices that appeal and leave the rest.
Obviously, there are good reasons for me to worry that I won’t be able to build a community in poly world if my choices involve a disproportionate number of pagans. I find such practices culturally unappealing. But not only does paganism not speak to me, I feel on guard against it and other New-Age forms of worship that draw in superficial and often corrupting ways on the traditions of indigenous and other peoples from around the world. Some New Age leaders have also made unsubstantiated individual claims to Native American identity to the consternation of Native peoples ourselves. Such borrowing is ethically troubling in that it helps extend misperceptions of Native American and other indigenous ceremonies, knowledges, and definitions of community belonging. It encourages even more appropriation and wild claims. In rare cases New Age adaptations are downright dangerous, such as when New Ager James Arthur Ray improperly performed what he called a sweat lodge ceremony in Sedona, Arizona in 2009. His “ceremony” resulted in the death of several people. 20 more were hospitalized. Attendees had paid up to $10,000 to participate. Charging for a ceremony is something else that is looked down upon in U.S. Native American communities.
The Whiteness of Poly: What’s a Critical Polyamorist to Do?
There are problems for me in polyamory that go beyond the main gripes described in poly self-help literature—overcoming sex repression, jealousy, open communication, time management and “coming out” to family, friends, and colleagues. Time management—that complaint really makes me roll my eyes. Oh my God, I cannot manage all of my lovers! Do I have time to change my sheets between dates? Can I keep my Google calendar straight?
Yet despite my sarcasm, polyamory provides an ethical and practical framework for living and loving, in a way that can help undo the damage done to people of all backgrounds by Eurocentric, Judeo-Christian, heteronormative, and economically, environmentally, and emotionally unsustainable concepts of nuclear family. Compulsory monogamy anchors those family forms and often involves notions of ownership and control of others’ bodies and desires. In 2013 in the United States of America, “polyamory” is a more realistic framework for challenging such rigid relationship and family forms than, say, returning to some pre-colonial plural marriage practice that my tribe and many others had. I am not sure we even fully know what those looked like since “sexuality” as we cohere it in contemporary Western culture became a chief site of oppression and control of indigenous peoples by Christian missionaries and the U.S. state.
Of course, in extolling the virtues of poly, I cannot stress enough that most people don’t have my financial autonomy, moral support, or analytical resources to make a choice for plural love and sex. And women are even more limited than men in such choices. I never ever forget my privilege as a financially non-dependent woman with a relatively tolerant family and community of friends, and with the intellectual resources to learn how to do this. But I also hope that if more of us do it, maybe others in the future will find easier acceptance. And as diverse people find a way to live this way, if indeed they want to, eventually a poly world won’t look so homogenous. Perhaps a few of us here and there across this vast country are already articulating different constellations of practices, different ways of naming this life informed by different histories and sensibilities. I hope that one day we do not have to rely so much on a language and conceptual framework circumscribed by such an undiverse set of people.
Until then I remain yours,
The Critical Polyamorist
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Ixoreus for leading me to scholarly work on neo-paganism. I did not use them all and wish I could give the topic deeper attention as it intersects with race and polyamory. But alas this is a blog, not a magnum opus.
 Jin Haritaworn, Chin-ju Lin, and Christian Klesse, “Poly/logue: A Critical Introduction to Polyamory. Sexualities 9(5) (2006): 515-529; Melita J. Noël, “Progressive Polyamory: Considering Issues of Diversity. Sexualities 9(5) (2006): 602-620; Angela Willey, “’Science Says She’s Gotta Have It’: Reading for Racial Resonances in Woman-Centered Poly Literature, in Understanding Non-Monogamies, eds. Meg Barker and Darren Langridge (London: Routledge, 2010), 34-45.
 Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio, “Polyamory,” in Sexuality, ed. J. Eadie (London: Arnold, 2004), 164-5; Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio. Plural Loves: Designs for Bi and Poly Living New York: Haworth Press, 2004; Haritaworn, Chin-ju Lin, and Klesse 2006; and Noël 2006.
 See “The American Indian and Alaska Native Population: 2010. 2010 Census Briefs,” http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-10.pdf, accessed December 10, 2013.
 Circe Sturm. Becoming Indian: The Struggle Over Cherokee Identity in the 21st Century. Sante Fe: School for Advanced Research Press, 2010.
 Yael Ben-zvi, “Where Did Red Go? Lewis Henry Morgan’s Evolutionary Inheritance and U.S. Racial Imagination,” New Centennial Review 7(2): 201-229.
 Brian W. Dippie, The Vanishing American, Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1982.
 Sean Sullivan, “The Fight Over Elizabeth Warren’s Heritage Explained, The Washington Post, September 27, 2012, accessed December 10, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2012/09/27/the-fight-over-elizabeth-warrens-heritage-explained/.
 T.M. Luhrmann, “Touching the Divine: Recent Research on Neo-Paganism and Neo-Shamanism.” Reviews in Anthropology 41 (2012): 138-39.
 John Dougherty, “For Some Seeking Rebirth, Sweat Lodge Was End,” The New York Times, October 21, 2009, accessed December 10, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/22/us/22sweat.html; ICTMN Staff, “Self-Help Shamster Behind Sweat-Lodge Homicides Released From Prison Read,” Indian Country Today Media Network, July 13, 2013, accessed December 10, 2013, http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/07/13/james-arthur-ray-released-prison-no-not-guy-who-killed-mlk-150407.
I am a minority within a minority. I am a polyamorist. Polyamory means being romantically involved with more than one person at a time. With the knowledge and consent of all involved. It does not mean just sex with multiple people. For me and many others it involves the heart.
And I am Native American. No really, I am! My great-grandmother was NOT a Cherokee princess. I am descended from at least four different tribal peoples, and I am a citizen of one of those tribes. And unlike some folks who claim a Native American identity based on some distant and sometimes unsubstantiated ancestor, my entire family—at least the biological relatives—are Native American. Of course, polyamory is not a traditional Native American practice. Or at least it’s no more or no less traditional historically than patronizing your local diamond counter, registering for china at Macy’s, and going down to the little white church. I’ll come back to that in a future blog post.
The polyamory expert Elisabeth Sheff notes that people of color and working class people “do not appear in large numbers in mainstream poly communities.” Feminist scholar and critic of monogamy Angela Willey explains that while others engage in varied practices of non-monogamy without necessarily calling it “polyamory” there is a "white hegemony in poly literature" that "has tended to presume a universal subject, neutral and therefore implicitly white, middle-class, college educated, able bodied." As a woman of color raised poor or working class in rural America, although I am now a professional, there are challenges in being an explicit and especially rare practitioner of polyamory. Like many other poly people, I have a university degree. Of course! I would NEVER have been exposed to all of you poly folks if I did not. But after living and traveling in many places, I find that I am still a small town girl in ways that surprise me. My extended family is historically not very formally educated but we were nonetheless a book-reading and PBS-watching lot. I was exposed early on to politically oppositional thinking. My family is anti-racist and anti-homophobic. I am the only one who identifies as a feminist, but most of the women in my family act like they are. I have uncles, aunts, and cousins who are definitely country. Some of them hunt, own guns, and drive trucks. All of the recipes they post to Facebook involve something in a box and or a can. They shop at Walmart. None of us are vegetarians or hippies who practice free love in communes. Well, except me a little.
The Critical Polyamorist is an experiment to think through in cyberspace, as an unusually situated person, this adventure that I have embarked upon. This isn’t public journaling. I want to begin a conversation with other polyamorists who feel not only socially challenged in the broader monogamist culture but who also feel culturally challenged within our rather homogenous polyamorist communities. (Disclaimer: I live in middle America, not California or New York. Maybe there are more folks of color who are out as poly in those places. But it’s a pretty pale landscape around here.) I am starting this blog in order to reflect and converse about these struggles with others who feel like me. I know you are out there. I am interested in reaching folks who are grateful for the models other polyamorists provide to love plurally and ethically. Their books and blogs keep me committed to this path on those days when I am suddenly weary or sad. When I feel like falling back into monogamy because it seems easier, because the world is made by and for them. I often hear poly people talk about the lack of models in our society for living this kind of life. We are inundated from birth with monogamy, indoctrinated in its norms and values. Few of us are born into poly families. We often come to this path after living as monogamists for substantial portions of our lives. I have only identified as poly for about a year. At this point I am proceeding with more determination and faith than support or understanding.
And for a minority of us within an already poly minority, the examples and support we can find in mainstream poly communities fall short in specific ways as we struggle to do polyamory as particular raced and classed subjects. I identify not at all with the kind of New Age-tinged, communal mode of life taken up by the Kerista Commune in San Francisco in the 1970s that is credited with birthing the polyamory term. And I still see too much for my taste of stereotypical “hippie-dippy” culture in this community. But I am inspired by the systematic shift in both practice and thought that polyamory articulates. I like its intellectual substance. I just sometimes get turned off by its particular form of white cultural drag. I want to find a home in this poly world. If I’m going to do that I need to help make it more diverse. My gift to this community is to provide this place of reflection such as would reaffirm my struggle on those days when I doubt I can do this.
So what do I mean by “critical polyamory”? This blog brings critical social theory including analyses of U.S. race and culture to analyze poly life and politics from my perspective as a woman of color, as a rural-born and now urban-dwelling Native American professional. I take the label “critical” not to downplay the radical critique of our society’s compulsory monogamy that polyamorists already engage in. We poly people are critical thinkers and actors who think it is possible to ethically love multiple people simultaneously with the consent of all involved. Polyamory is in this sense inherently and deeply critical. But when I take up the label “critical” it is not redundant. It draws on a broader tradition of “critical social theory.” That is an academic term in which analysis and critique of social problems are not just for the good of knowledge, but they are geared toward social change. Indeed, in pushing for greater inclusion in dominant society, have communities of color not always explicitly called out both obvious and not so obvious politics and cultural practices that exclude our experiences and histories? Critical social theory traditionally brings insights from multiple social science and humanities disciplines (anthropology, psychology, history, sociology, literature etc). I will occasionally add insights from the biophysical sciences to inform my analyses of poly life and politics. That divide between society and nature is a false one anyway. The biophysical sciences also matter very much in understanding our world. And increasingly, disciplines are getting smeared across that line between culture and nature.
My kid tells me that I have an “evil sense of humor.” This blog will sometimes get evil, and hopefully funny. All names, locations, and other identifying information will be changed or hidden to protect the innocent, and the not so innocent.
Stay tuned for my next post, “Poly, Not Pagan, and Proud.”
The Critical Polyamorist
 Angela Willey, “’Science Says She’s Gotta Have It’: Reading for Racial Resonances in Woman-Centered Poly Literature,” in Understanding Non-Monogamies, eds. Meg Barker and Darren Langdridge (London: Routledge, 2010), 34-45.
Photo credit: Short Skirts and Cowgirl Boots by David Hensley
The Critical Polyamorist, AKA Kim TallBear, blogs & tweets about indigenous, racial, and cultural politics related to ethical non-monogamy. She is a prairie loving, big sky woman. She lives south of the Arctic Circle, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. You can follow her on Twitter @CriticalPoly