Sexuality in Polyamorous Relationships
Polyfidelity, polysexuality, and polyaffectivity with varied degrees of sex.
Posted Jul 01, 2019
Polyamorous relationships can involve a range of sexuality, from a whole lot to none at all. This blog presents them in order from the most emphasis on sexuality with polysexuality to polyaffectivity, with the least emphasis on sexuality.
Polysexuality is the practice of having sex with multiple people, either simultaneously as a form of group sex, or with just one other person at a time, and then a new person, and then a different person. You get the idea. Depending on the people involved, polysexuality can include anything from dating many people casually or having lots of sex to frequenting public sex environments or attending sex parties and orgies. Some polysexuals like to include emotional intimacy with their sexuality, and others are all about the sex with as many (new) people as possible.
Sexual exclusivity, probably the single most important and distinguishing factor of monogamous relationships, is not expected in polyamorous relationships. Levels of sexual exclusivity, however, are a popular topic of conversation among polyamorous people, and frequently the subject of intense negotiation. Those in polyamorous relationships generally attempt to maintain sexually, and (ideally) emotionally, intimate relationships with no promise of sexual exclusivity. For ease of conversation, people in mainstream poly communities in the U.S. tend to use polyamory or poly as an umbrella term to encompass the practices of polyamory, polyfidelity, and polysexuality.
Polyfidelity most closely resembles a closed group marriage because, even though the people in it might not be legally married, they do expect everyone in the relationship to be sexually exclusive with the identified group. It differs from polyamory in that polyfideles (the term for someone who is a polyfidelitist) generally expect the people in their group to be sexually exclusive, and polyamorists usually do not.
The majority of polyfidelitous groups require that people who want to join their group get tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) before having sex of any kind with any group member, much less unprotected sex (which requires fluid bonding, a form of commitment that allows people to share bodily fluids during sex). People in polyfidelitous groups often see each other as family members, regardless of the degree (or lack) of sexual contact within their relationships. The larger the group is, the more likely it is to have members who do not have sex with each other.
Polyfidelitous groups sometimes experience cheating, when a member sneaks outside of the approved group to have sex with someone else who either has not been tested or approved or who might have been actively disapproved by other group members. While most polyamorists talk about avoiding making rules about how people should feel about each other, some polyfideles express a strong preference that all group members share equal feelings of affection or love for each other member of the group. Such equality seems much easier for smaller groups (especially triads) to maintain, and bigger groups inevitably develop some relationships that are more intense than others.
The essential difference between polyamory and polyfidelity is that the polyfideles expect sexual exclusivity within their specific group and the polyamorists do not. Some polyamorists characterized those in polyfidelitous relationships as practicing “monogamy plus” and harboring a “closed-minded and grasping” approach to relationships. Some polyfideles, on the other hand, scorned polyamorists as “swinger wanna-bes” or “just screwing around.” Some members of each camp claim to define the “real” form of polyamory and judge the other’s practice as defective.
Many people in polyamorous relationships maintain emotionally intimate, sexually platonic relationships with their metamours and other members of their polycule (a network of relationships around a polyamorous family). Inspired by poly community tradition, I coined the term polyaffective to describe non-sexual relationships among people in polyamorous relationships. Adult polyaffective relationships with other adults appear as co-spouses or quasi-siblings, and with children as co-parents, aunts/uncles, or quasi older siblings. Children’s relationships with each appear as quasi-sibling, cousin, friend, and/or rival.
While polyamory and polysexuality get the big headlines because they are so splashy and intriguing, my longitudinal research shows that it is actually the polyaffective relationships that are key to maintaining a happy, functional polyamorous family. When the metamours (people who share a partner in common but are not sexual partners themselves) like each other and get along well, the polyfamily can be even more resilient than a monogamous family because of the pooled resources and cooperation. If the metamours hate each other, though, that polyfamily is doomed to a lot of fighting and misery—unless they can work it out to have a congenial relationship between the metamours.
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