Polyamory, Consensual Non-Monogamy, or AltSex?

The language of sex and gender minorities and why it matters.

Posted Jan 29, 2018

In the U.S. and many other Western nations, the number and variety of recognized sexual and gender identities are expanding at an unprecedented rate. With such rapidly changing ideas about sexuality and gender, it can be difficult to know how to accurately — and inoffensively — describe emerging sexualities.  

Why "Non" and Other Qualifiers Are Problematic

Describing a sexual identity by what it is not can be uncomfortable and inaccurate, in part because it erases what the person actively is. They might be non-monogamous, for example, but that does not describe who they actually are, or what kinds of relationships they prefer. This also reinforces whatever is being used as the comparison as the "true" standard. Just as "non-white" fixes whiteness as the standard by which all others are judged, terms like alternative sexualities, non-monogamy, sexual non-conformists, and non-heterosexuals all reinforce the idea that there is a single, unified standard of heterosexual, monogamous conformity. Clearly, that is not the case: There is tremendous diversity in the ways that heterosexuals do monogamy, from hyper-monogamy, or mundane monogamy, to incidents that “don’t count” because they were online/at a strip club/with a professional/in Vegas, as well as outright infidelity or cheating (Frank and DeLamater, 2010).

Similarly, qualifiers like "consensualor "ethicalnon-monogamy are distasteful to some, because it comes across as defensive. By focusing on ethicality, they say it can imply an obnoxious superiority to others who do not live the same way, and is shrill enough that it could be covering something up. Community members have also critiqued the term consensual non-monogamy, because they believe it implies that everyone involved has the same definition of and access to consent.

So, if describing an identity by what it is not is both imprecise and reinforces the idea of a mythical standard as normal, and adding qualifiers is irritating, then what is the alternative?


Source: PxHere

Rather than defining against some other standard, some people have attempted to create identities that positively describe who they are. At first, the terminology was gay, then gay and lesbian, then bisexuals claimed a spot, followed by transgender, and then ... the acronym shifted from GLBT (with its emphasis on men) to LGBT, and has since expanded to LGBTQ+. These letters are politicized through the order in which they appear, and if they are included at all. Once you start listing all identities, you will inevitably leave someone out, or list one before the other, and make someone angry. In such a rapidly changing sociosexual landscape, any list is out of date by the time it is solidified enough to be called a list.


Gender and Sex Minorities is a descriptor expansive enough to be inclusive, clear enough to be accurate, and short enough to become a useful acronym — GSM. The term Sex and Gender Minorities is similarly descriptive, but slightly less useful politically, because of the emphasis on sexuality by listing that letter first. Neither GSM nor SGM have really caught on in the United States; the terminology is more popular in Europe. 

Create New Words

For many sex and gender minorities who dislike identifying as non or alt, creating new terms to describe themselves is a much better choice. Positively self-defining can be empowering and help to more accurately describe how the members of a community think of themselves. Unfortunately, these newly created words also create a group that is in the know about the lingo, which excludes others who don’t know the language, or identify with the other members of the lingo clique. It can be useful and empowering to construct a distinct identity, but it inevitably comes at the expense of becoming narrower.  

Polyamorous communities have taken the idea of creating new words to new heights. The term "polyamory," coined by community member Morning Glory Ravenheart Zell, is a good example; it is both specific and a positive self-expression of community identity, rather than a comparison. Poly folks have also made up all sorts of other words. A "polycule" is an emotionally intimate constellation of relationships connected via polyamory — an expanded family. "Compersionis the feeling of joy that polyamorists can get when their partners are happily in love or having fun in a relationship with someone else — the opposite of jealousy. "Metamoursare partners’ partners who generally do not have a sexual relationship, but know each other and might be friends; your spouse’s sweetie is your metamour. "Polyaffectiveare the emotionally intimate, non-sexual relationships between people linked by polyamorous relationships. To put them all in context, the polycule lives harmoniously, because the metamours have a wonderful polyaffective relationship that involves a lot of compersion. 

Facebook image: Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock


“Deconstructing Monogamy:  Boundaries, Identities, and Fluidities Across Relationships” with John DeLamater (2009)  in Understanding Non-Monogamies (edited by Barker & Landridge)