Are Polyamorous Relationships Sexist?

Objectified "Hot Bi Babes" and unruly women coexist in the same communities.

Posted Jun 22, 2016

In the US today, multiple-partner relationships have an aura of polygyny, with one man who has several wives basically maintaining a harem. Even though polyamory allows people of all genders to have multiple partners, the popular image of a male/female couple seeking another woman contributes to the impression that the multiple partners are at the man’s urging and in his sexual service. But are polyamorous relationships truly sexist? My research indicates that some are, and many aren’t.

Polygyny is not Polyamory

It is important to note that polygyny, or one man with multiple wives, is quite different from polyamory. Polygyny is often a component of a patriarchal religions such as Fundamental Latter Day Saints (Mormons) or Islam, and generally high-status men negotiate women’s marriages among themselves. Polyamory, in contrast, is a lifestyle or sexual orientation without an enforced belief system that people must seek out themselves. Although most polygynous families are loving, the worst grab headlines with girls married as adolescents, kept in compounds, denied education, prevented from working for pay, and isolated from society. Women in poly families, however, are often highly educated, employed in paid work, and in control of their own lives.

Patriarchy for Sale, Jonathan McIntosh, Flickr
Source: Patriarchy for Sale, Jonathan McIntosh, Flickr

Hot Bi Babes

Although a “Hot Bi Babe” could be of any gender, popular poly lingo makes it clear that the most valued hot bi babe is a woman. Especially in online discussions, women dominate the idealized position of a bisexual partner available to spice up a relationship. This especially takes the form of the unicorn, an unattached bisexual woman eager to join an established couple and be their sex slave at night and their nanny during the day. She is labeled the unicorn because she is so rare as to be nearly mythical. In a recent blog, poly author and publisher Eve Rickert pointed out that the unicorns are usually expected to provide extensive emotional labor to the couple (conforming to their rules, respecting their relational primacy, engaging in communication at their behest, providing sexual services on the couple’s terms – all while refraining from making any demands on the couple or seeking support from other partners. Clearly that gendered expectation puts women at a significant disadvantage, and is one of the primary reasons why so many unicorn hunters are unsuccessful in their search for a woman to fit that confining and alienating role.  

One Penis Policy

In addition to the added emotional labor, the One Penis Policy (OPP) is one of the most egregious examples of sexist polyamory. Briefly summarized, it is almost always a heterosexual man with multiple female partners who institutes the OPP and bans other men from the relationship. Such a ban can either be explicit, with rules that restrict sex with other men, or implicitly enforced through jealous tantrums that make it too much work to date men.

The OPP is incredibly sexist and insulting to women for (at least) two reasons. First, it allows the man multiple other-sex (female) partners but denies women the same choice. Second, it assumes that women’s relationships with each other are “safe” in that they will not threaten the relationship with the man. This attitude not only demeans the value, intensity, and seriousness of women’s relationships, it also glorifies the magic penis as the source of all sexual glee. Either way it enshrines the man as the center of the relationship with special privileges and powers endowed by the magic of the penis, which is so powerful that there can only be one present within a 100 foot radius at any given point.

Unruly Women

Even though some poly relationships are patently unequal for women, most of them are based on and strive for gender equality. Popular conceptions of male-driven poly relationships aside, many women initiate polyamory and pursue poly relationships according to their own desires. These women reject social stereotypes that cast female sexual desire as dangerous or unnatural and instead embrace their high-sexual desire and express it as they wish. Some poly women report feeling more connected to their personal power and in touch with their own desires and boundaries than when they had been monogamous. Others say that they feel connected with other women for the first time, no longer viewing them as competition or a source of potential judgment and degradation.

More Choice, More Power?

Women in mainstream poly communities in the United States are generally not downtrodden, silent creatures with zero decision-making power in their own relationships. Rather, they tend to be dynamic, world-wise, and assertive. Earning their own money, working in large companies or their own businesses, these women are captains of their own destiny. In fact, the majority of the leaders, authors, researchers, and organizers in the loose-knit US poly community are women. Many, but not all, poly communities have more men looking for partners than women willing to have multiple partners. This numerical imbalance can give women a dating advantage and grant them added gravity in community matters.