There's a Conversation About Polyamory We're Not Having

Three pairs of feet sticking out of the bottom of the covers

A few weeks ago, I attended a Play Party Etiquette Workshop, a class for people interested in learning about how to behave at play (sex) parties). At the event, attendees were given a worksheet to express their "desires, intentions and boundaries," featuring such checklist items as, "During this party, I would like to be clear about my boundaries while connecting with strangers."

The Play Party Etiquette Workshop was held at Hacienda Villa, a sex-positive community in Brooklyn known for polyamory and play parties, led by sex educator Kenneth Play and relationship expert Effy Blue. Along with this worksheet, the workshop included a slideshow presentation with multiple slides on the importance of "enthusiastic consent," a concept also taught in schools, advised by feminist writers and even passed as legislature in California as the "affirmative consent" bill.

Both Blue and Play practice polyamory, as did many of the attendees. (While one doesn't need to be polyamorous to attend a sex party, there is often overlap between the two groups.) Polyamorous people have multiple partners, meaning they can date, love and fuck more than one person. That can make establishing consent and firm boundaries even more complicated than it is in monogamous relationships.

Mic/Getty Images

Poly people take specific approaches for everything from how to establish safe-sex boundaries with other partners to warding off aggressive come-ons. For starters, while those in committed, monogamous relationships only need to agree on a safe-sex practice for the two of them, those in poly relationships need to continually discuss it as their partners change.

Within poly relationships, "consent is more complicated because you need the consent of every partner for every action," John*, a 35-year-old polyamorous man, told Mic. "I can't just start barebacking one partner, because that can have an effect on the sexual health of my other partners."

For this reason, polyamorous people need to discuss things like condoms perhaps more often than monogamous couples do. In fact, a 2012 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine indicated that couples who practice consensual non-monogamy generally have fewer STIs and practice safer sex than monogamous couples where one partner has been unfaithful.

"What is typically common is that poly people will have very explicit conversations around safe sex with other partners. What are their boundaries, what are their preferences, what are their deal breakers," Zhana Vrangalova, an adjunct professor at New York University and founder of the Casual Sex Project, told Mic.

Poly people also have to deal with people outside the poly community constantly assuming that they're sexually available. "On one hand, a poly person is like a single person in the sense that they are not 'taken.' So when someone else learns that someone is poly, the perception is that: 'Okay, well, they are at least potentially available. Proceed as if this is a single person,'" Vrangalova told Mic.

John agreed: "It's certainly happened that people have assumed I'm down [for sex] purely because I'm poly, even in the most inappropriate situations."

But even though people outside the community might believe that poly people are up for anything, that's far from the case: Different poly couples have different guidelines for their relationship. While John said he personally is available to play with other partners, others in the polyamory community need permission from their primary partner before starting something with someone new. Some people prefer to discuss new partners with their primary partners beforehand.

Additionally, Vrangalova said that people outside the poly community tend to perceive poly people to be more kinky and sexual than monogamous folks. While that can be true for certain couples, polyamory is an identity that encompasses all ranges of kink and sexuality.

"I think those two things [perception of availability and sexual appetite] get inflated to get people extra sexually interested in poly people — and then extra disappointed if the poly person is not responding to them," Vrangalova said.

It's not uncommon for people in monogamous relationships to say they're polyamorous as a way to get a little side action. On a page in the polyamory subreddit, for instance, one Redditor advised that "if someone tells me they're in an open relationship, my only response is 'I need to hear it from your wife/girlfriend.'"

Despite the many stereotypes associated with polyamory, generally speaking, the community prioritizes enthusiastic consent over everything else. It's also important to note that the same rules don't necessarily apply to all poly couples. 

"Some partners may have rules about who is in bounds and not. And some partners might not want you to be generally available, but may want to be looped in before every new encounter. 100 people, 100 different rules," John told Mic.  

*Last names have been withheld to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.