Whether or not polyamory qualifies as a sexual orientation depends in part on who is asking, for what reason, and what they mean by sexual orientation. Legally, polyamory is not considered a sexual orientation in the United States (or anywhere else, to my knowledge) and so is not eligible for protected status under statutes that protect people from employment and housing discrimination based on sex, sexuality, or gender. On a more personal level, some individuals do identify polyamory as their sexual orientation, and others define it as a lifestyle choice.
The idea of sexual orientation as defined only by the gender of the partner desired is fairly new, at least in such a narrow scope. Historically, sex was a series of acts that people did, not something that defined them as a specific type of person. Since the sexologists of the mid to late 1800s invented the idea of sexual orientation, it has relied primarily upon the sex of the desired partner.[i] People who wanted someone of a different sex became defined as heterosexual, those who wanted a partner of the same sex were deemed homosexual, and folks who desired partners of “both”[ii] sexes were labeled bisexual.
While the gender of a partner remains the primary legal standard for sexual orientation, such a simplistic view of sexuality fails to adequately encompass the enormous range of sexual and gender diversity that exists today. Contemporary sexual orientation includes a far wider array of factors, including (but not limited to): type of sex,[iii] presence or absence of desire for sex,[iv] and relational configuration.
Whether or not polyamory is a sexual orientation is more than a philosophical question. If poly were to be recognized as a sexual orientation, polyamorous people could potentially receive protections from discrimination. Because polyamory is not currently recognized as a sexual orientation, there is no recourse for those who experience discrimination—people have lost their jobs, housing, and custody of their children due to being in polyamorous relationships.
In her 2011 Law Review article, lawyer Ann Tweedy argues that polyamory should be legally recognized as a sexual orientation because our understandings of the terms sexual and orientation have changed radically since the invention of the idea. Rather than artificially limit the notion of sexual orientation to gender of desired partner, Tweedy argues that polyamory should be defined as a sexual orientation because it is “sufficiently embedded” in polyamorous people’s lives that they both establish an identity around it and may experience discrimination related to it.
When Polyamory Personally IS an Orientation
Some of the respondents in my 20-year study of polyamorous families identified polyamory as their sexual orientation. People who experience polyamory as a sexual orientation often describe themselves as being “wired that way” and report that they could not choose to be different even if they tried (and some have tried doggedly).
Poly-by-orientation people often mention being oriented toward multiple people since childhood, such as pretending to have multiple spouses when they played house or socializing in groups instead of having a single best friend. Many emphasize a profound discomfort with monogamy and an inability to remain in monogamous relationships. One respondent summarized monogamous relationships as “like wearing shoes two sizes too small—you can cram your foot in there momentarily, but you won’t like it and won’t be able to walk very far.”
Even with this profound discomfort, many poly-by-orientation folks had tried hard to be monogamous at some point in their past and ended up cheating anyway. Some decided monogamy was not for them independently and simply stopped making monogamous agreements with anyone, and only later took on a polyamorous identity when they heard the term in conversation or online. Others discovered consensual non-monogamy and (usually with great relief) decided to become polyamorous once they realized it was an option. Poly-by-orientation people generally do not foresee a possible future that includes monogamy, and will most likely be in and/or desire some form of open relationship for the rest of their lives. If they break up from a polyamorous relationship, it does not change their internal identification as a polyamorous person.
When Polyamory Personally is NOT an Orientation
Rather than a sexual orientation, some people identify polyamory as a choice, lifestyle, social movement, or even a component of sacred sexuality. Poly-as-choice folks are more likely to have been comfortable in monogamous relationships at some point, and some report that they would consider monogamy as a potential choice in their futures depending on how things worked out.
For the choice and lifestyle crowd, there is much more flexibility to find fulfillment in a range of relationship styles. In some cases, people choose polyamory for a specific period of time: while they are young and do not have children, after a divorce when they want to play the field in an open and honest way, or after their kids have moved out and they feel more freedom to experiment with their sexuality. For others, it is a more permanent choice, often supported by community connections and social/political beliefs that de-emphasize ownership and encourage self-responsibility.
So, is polyamory a sexual orientation? For now, the answer is yes, and no—depending on whom you ask.
[i] Foucault, M. (1990). The history of sexuality: An introduction, volume I.Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage.
[ii] Both implies there are only two, and extensive research has demonstrated the existence of many sexes and genders with intersexed people, transgender folks, and gender queers challenging the notion of only two sexes. See for instance Kessler, S. J. (1998). Lessons from the Intersexed. Rutgers University Press. Or Nestle, J., Howell, C., & Wilchins, R. A. (Eds.). (2002). Genderqueer: Voices from beyond the sexual binary. Alyson Publications.
[iii] Vanilla, kinky, or something else?
[iv] Asexuals do not want to have sex, demisexuals only want to have sex when they are emotionally connected to someone, and graysexuals generally do not want penetrative sex but like to cuddle and possibly kiss.
[v] Tweedy, A. E. (2011). Polyamory as a sexual orientation. University of Cincinnati Law Review, 79, 1461.