Polyamory is diverse in three ways. First, as an element of social diversity, polys join the ever-increasing cadre of what used to be called alternative families but are now rapidly becoming the norm. Second, poly relationships are quite diverse in the ways people structure their relationships and lead their lives. Third, diversity among poly people is a complex issue: they are quite varied in some ways, and rather homogenous in others.
Familial diversity has risen dramatically in the last 75 years. Longer life-spans, increasing financial independence for women, and a far broader array of racial, ethnic, and sexual identities are only a few of the social trends that are changing society in the US. Amidst this shifting social landscape, polyamorous families are largely unrecognized in the diversity pantheon. Most diversity programs – even those that include people in same-sex relationships – do not incorporate polyamorists simply because they have not been well known enough for long enough to make their presence felt in diversity curricula. If current trends continue, the number of poly relationships will rise dramatically as members of the general public discover what I call the polyamorous possibility, or the option of adding openly conducted non-monogamy to the relational menu that used to only include being single, being monogamous, or cheating (and now also includes hooking up for certain age groups). As the poly population rises and becomes more visible, recognizing them as diverse families will become increasingly important.
While polyamory is a coherent relationship style in that polys share a common focus on honesty, emotional intimacy, gender equality, and openness to multiple partners, the ways in which people actually practice polyamory vary dramatically. People in polyfidelitous relationships maintain sexual exclusivity among a group larger than two, while people in polyamorous relationships do not generally expect sexual exclusivity from their partners. Solo polys or free agents have emotionally intimate and lasting relationships, but do not tend to organize their lives around romantic relationships. Some polys are coupled with or even legally married to a primary partner with whom they share a domicile, finances, and co-parent children, all the while dating and/or loving people in addition to their spouse, or secondary partners. Others reject the hierarchy of the primary/secondary model and emphasize nesting (cohabitation) versus non-nesting (living separately). Group relationships like triads (three-person relationships) or quads (four partners) connect multiple adults that may or may not have children or co-reside. Moresomes are group relationships with five or more, and at some point merge to intimate networks that connect groups of people who share common lovers, exs, and friends.
Population Diversity and Homogeneity
Although poly relationships are quite diverse, the people in mainstream poly communities share some significant similarities. The vast majority are white, middle or upper middle class people in their early 30s to mid 60s with high levels of education, who typically live in urban or suburban areas, and often work at professional jobs in information technology, education, or healthcare. As a whole they tend to be either non-religious or practice uncommon religions like Paganism, Unitarian Universalism, or Buddhism (although there are a smattering of Christians and a few Jews, too).
Does this mean that there are no people of color, working class people, or Christians practicing polyamory? Certainly not. But it does mean that they have not (yet?) appeared in large numbers in mainstream poly communities. There is undoubtedly a wide range of people who have non-monogamous relationships with varying degrees of knowledge/consent and do not label them as polyamorous. Others might label their relationships as polyamorous but skip the mainstream poly scene and establish their own independent poly social networks.
Barriers to Race and Class Diversity
Although class and race are distinct, they are strongly related in the United States because racism contributes to poverty. While I have definitely seen the numbers of people of color at poly events rise, even in Atlanta (with a large African American population) poly events remain largely populated with white people. Poly people of color I have interviewed give three main reasons why they think other people of color might be reluctant to attend poly community events. First, and especially for women, was that they were nervous that they might be fetishized or objectified, seen as a two-dimensional (race/sex) novelty to be experienced rather than a full person. Second, the apparent immorality of polyamory in both a religious and a social sense makes it unlikely that self-respecting or upstanding people of color would participate. Racism makes life hard enough as it is, and to voluntarily take on anything that invites even more discrimination is not only foolish, but it hurts family and friends by confirming white people’s stereotypes of people of color as animalistic, out of control, ruled by their libidos. Third, time and logistics can keep all but the most determined poor or working class people from being easily poly. Working two or three jobs and spending hours a day on public transit make it hard to maintain one relationship, much less have enough free time to date multiple people. Living in subsidized housing often means constant surveillance and questions about who is spending time in the household.
A final barrier to diversity is the potential for working class and people of color to feel uncomfortable participating in research conducted by a highly educated white person (like me and most of the other researchers studying polyamory). It can be challenging to discuss relationships, jealousy, and sexuality at all, and to do so with someone who may or may not be judging you, looking down on you, or simply misunderstanding you can be especially daunting for people who are already disadvantaged by racism and classism.
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