There's a Big Problem With Polyamory That Nobody's Talking About
When it comes to love and sex, "polyamory" is today's "it" word.
Poly relationships, meaning romantic connections involving more than one person at a time, seem to be making more headlines each day. "I have a fiancé, a girlfriend and two boyfriends," states one recent CNN headline. "Jealous of What? Solving Polyamory's Jealousy Problem" reads one in Salon. "Should We All Be in 'Monogamish' Relationships?" asked Yahoo recently. "Sex and Polyamory in the Hashtag Age" was a Good Morning America segment just this week.
"There's this huge group of younger people that are involved in these things," one 20-something told Rolling Stone in its big "Tales From the Millennials' Sexual Revolution" investigation.
What's great is the ubiquity of polyamorous relationships in the media and pop culture. But there's a prevailing problem that cannot be ignored: their whiteness. And that standard of whiteness not only erases the experience of people of color; it reflects the actual exclusion of these people in poly life and communities.
A hot "trend" portrayed as sexy, youthful — and rich and white: Polyamory may be more accepted than ever, but it's still largely portrayed as an exotic, vaguely kinky alternative to the institution of monogamy. Purposefully or not, when media and pop culture portray polyamory as something practiced mainly by affluent white people, it makes the image of the movement more accessible and acceptable to the mainstream.
Just take Rolling Stone, which made a point of noting of its subjects: "They're ... both young professional types. She wears pretty skirts; he wears jeans and trendy glasses. They have a large, downtown apartment with a sweeping view." The same archetypes are prominent in pop culture portrayals, like in Showtime's Polyamory: Married & Dating.
But not only is polyamory neither a new development nor a hot "trend," it's been on the spectrum of human relationships since the beginning of civilization. Andy Izenson, an associate attorney at a firm specializing in nontraditional families, told Mic, "Living in chosen families, living in collectives, living in multiple-parent parenting situations ... calling those things poly is what's new, not doing those things." And poly lifestyles have also long included people of color, something the media dialogue seems to be missing.
The perception of poly as white extends beyond media and pop culture and into academia, where nearly every study of polyamorous people to-date focuses on white subjects. A 2011 study by professors Elisabeth Sheff and Corie Hammers found that in 36 studies of polyamorists/kinksters that noted participants' race and class, only an average of 10.8% of respondents were people of color, while 76.8% were of middle-class status or higher and 78% had at least some college education.
One explanation is that white researchers may have difficulty convincing people of color that they have good intentions in studying their sexual habits. If so, the sentiment shouldn't be too surprising given the current state of poly communities.
A white, affluent image that reflects a troubling reality: A 2013 survey of polyamorous people from online groups, mailing lists and forums found that almost 90% of the participants identified as Caucasian. People of color, especially black polyamorists, report feeling "othered" and excluded in poly environments such as meet-ups, with women feeling especially at risk of being objectified and fetishized as an exotic sexual plaything.
"I interviewed a black couple who went to a poly group, and they were definitely preyed upon, in a sense," said Marla Renee Stewart, Atlanta-based founder of Velvet Lips, a sex education venue. Atlanta is currently the most diverse polyamorous community in the U.S. due to its significantly large black middle class, Sheff told Mic.
There is a socioeconomic element at play when it comes to exclusion. Those people of color with lower income can feel marginalized by poly community culture's financial demands, which can include dishing out cash for a fancy play party or a plane ticket to Burning Man. The Behind Closed Doors party this Valentine's Day in Manhattan, for example, is charging single ladies $95 for tickets, while couples' tickets begin at $275. The cost of actively participating in the community can be an intimidating barrier.
Sheff and Hammers found evidence of such exclusion in their 2011 study. "Scarce funds can deter people with low incomes from participating in kink and poly community events," they wrote, acknowledging the difficulty of potentially being "one of the very few people of color or with low socioeconomic status in a group composed primarily of educated white people with professional jobs dressed in expensive fetish wear."
"That's a kind of actual exclusionary policy that I think I was largely criticizing," said Princeton student Vivienne Chen, who published an essay titled "Polyamory Is for Rich, Pretty People" and is a moderator of a private Facebook discussion group for alternative lifestyle choices which includes members from locations including New York, California, and London.
A vicious cycle of exclusion: These factors contribute to people of color's marginalization from poly life, thus creating an unfortunate feedback cycle: When people don't see the communities as diverse or accepting, they will be reluctant to join in.
"A lot of blacks, in certain environments, want to know that there's other blacks that are going to be there," said Ron Young, co-founder of the California-based Black and Poly organization, a family-centered poly group whose monthly kid-friendly meetings take place at a Unitarian Universalist church. "If you weren't raised in an integrated environment, that is definitely going to be a concern."
And with white currently seen as polyamory's default norm, at least from the outside, those within the community may neglect to consider those from other cultural and/or socioeconomic backgrounds. "The default in our country is whiteness, and the default in our country is heteronormative," said C. Maurice Love, who is starting a Black and Poly chapter for the New York/New Jersey areas.
"We've had a really tough time traversing that hurdle," said Young. "The struggle for us, it's real. It's racked with many miles and generations of societally constructed guilt and shame."
Progress on the horizon? Even if some white polyamorists are aware of the issue of exclusion, there isn't a clearly defined solution to reducing barriers to entry and creating a more accepting community. "I am afraid of any sort of outreach effort that looks like we're trying to tell them how to live their lives," Eve Rickert, co-author of More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory, told Mic. "How many times have middle-class white people done that?"
But others are more optimistic. The existence of groups like Black and Poly at least confront the matter of exclusion head-on. And Izenson, who co-hosts a monthly "Poly Cocktails" meet-up on New York City's Lower East Side, says the event has gotten significantly more diverse in the past six years, citing it as a sign of progress.
If so, the problem of racial exclusion in poly communities, one that mirrors so many other instances of racial exclusion elsewhere in society, may act as an hopeful model for inclusion and changing the current default to whiteness. As Chen told Mic, "The reason I put pressure on the poly community is because of its general mentality and philosophy of radical inclusion." If any group can do it, it might as well be one predicated on acceptance.
Updated Feb. 5 2:40 p.m. to remove the name of previously mentioned organization to protect the anonymity of the members.