5 Reasons Why Polyamorous Families are Reluctant to Be on TV
Media fatigue, sexual fetishization, and kids make polyamorous parents clam up.
Posted Feb 20, 2018
I just got off the phone with yet another producer who makes documentaries for television and wants me to help them find polyamorous families with children who are willing to be on TV. Although media outlets have been contacting me about my research since my first academic articles came out in 2004, increasing media awareness of consensual non-monogamy in the past five years has meant that number has dramatically increased, and now it seems like hordes of producers constantly contact me and other authors or professionals in the field of consensual non-monogamy.
At least once a month I get a request to connect a producer with polyamorous families raising children who will appear on camera and talk about their lives. Initially I would put out calls to a range of email and online polyamorous community lists for anyone who wanted to volunteer, and no one ever would. Once I even pulled out all the stops and contacted respondents from my research who fit the bill to see if I could give their information to the producer, and all of the respondents said no so the producers got nothing. Eventually I got tired of putting out endless calls to lists that were already saturated with similar requests for people to do interviews or go on reality TV shows, and instead started asking the polyamorous folks why they did not want to talk to the television producers. The list below is a summary of what those families told me.
1. Negative Experiences with Media
Many polyamorous people who have appeared on TV shows in the past have been attacked and humiliated by hosts, other guests, and live audience members. Anyone who has watched daytime television knows that sex and gender minorities tend to fare poorly when tried in the court of public opinion, and people in polyamorous relationships are no different. My own experience on a daytime talk show was characteristic of this tendency: Initially the producers asked many questions about my research and I expected them to present me on air as Dr. Elisabeth Sheff, the only researcher with a longitudinal study of polyamorous families. When it came time to air the segment, however, they labeled me as “Elisabeth, whose family was destroyed by polyamory” rather than the more appropriate “Dr. Sheff, researcher of polyamory.” None of the discussion of my research made it on air, and they cut my segment down to a tiny blip of my personal life that made me look like a complete ass. Others have fared far worse on reality TV, and word of these many negative experiences have spread through the polyamorous community as cautionary tales.
2. Media Fatigue
Even for those who have not (yet) been humiliated on air, the scarcity of others willing to speak publicly means that the few who are out on a national level get flooded with media requests. Eventually these folks tire of being under the media spotlight and begin to decline the requests. Sometimes a new person or polycule will step in to fill the media need, but those folks tend to get burned out in turn and the cycle repeats.
3. Fetishized as Sexual Objects
Even when the media outlet attempts to treat the polyamorous families fairly, television shows still tend to highlight the sexual aspect of the polyamorous relationships. On one level this makes sense, because it is the expanded sexual contact that ostensibly differentiates these families from other, more conventional families. On another level, this tendency to focus on sexuality becomes incredibly wearing for the families themselves and presents a very lopsided view of who these folks actually are. Even though communication and emotional intimacy are far more important for people in polyamorous relationships, conversations about personal boundaries and consent do not make for spicy television the way group sex does, so of course television producers want to focus on what brings in the ratings. This focus on sexuality at the exclusion of other aspects of polyamorous life tends to discourage the majority of poly folks from talking to the media.
4. Fear of Impact on Children
Many of the polyamorous parents in my study are reluctant to appear on TV themselves, and even more reluctant to ask their children to appear because of the potential negative impact that might befall the children or the family as a whole. School can be awkward or socially painful for even for children from conventional families, and adding in any sort of difference can make a child a target for bullying or harassment. If exposure of that difference comes on national television and their teachers, peers, and peers’ parents see it, children from polyamorous families could face serious social consequences at school, on their sports teams, or in other organized activities.
5. Potential Loss of Custody
Ever since April Divilbliss appeared on MTV’s Real Sex in the 1990s and subsequently lost custody of her child when her mother-in-law became aware of her polyamorous relationship as a result of the show, polyamorous parents have been reluctant to discuss their relationships on air. While not every polyamorous parent has family members who might sue for child custody, the danger is real enough that it has pervaded poly community thought. Outing themselves as sexually or relationally unconventional on national television can have significant legal consequences for sex and gender minority parents who generally do not fare well when it comes to child custody decisions.
While media producers can have little direct impact on the media fatigue that besets people who do too many interviews, they have a lot of control over the way they treat guests once they appear on the show. Producers who want polyamorous people to come on their shows should ensure the poly folks they will not be humiliated – and then live up to that promise. The most obvious remedy for sexual fetishization is to focus on other aspects of polyamorous life, not just sexuality.
The far more difficult issues of impacts on children and family members is not nearly as simple to solve. If producers want polyamorous families to take the risk of legal actions by discussing their relationships on television, the producers should provide some kind of protection for the guests on their shows. I have suggested to numerous producers that they should offer to pay for legal fees that arise from custody issues stemming from being on TV. Thus far, none of the producers have been willing to do so. In fact, they may not be able to offer those protections legally, even if the producers themselves were willing to do so. Until society is more accepting of sex and relationship diversity or television producers are willing to protect the people on their shows, the dangers of exploitation and legal consequences are simply too acute for many polyamorous families to take the risk of appearing on television.