Gay, straight, bi… poly?

Some people describe being poly as an orientation, whereas others feel it is simply a matter of personal choice. To be perfectly honest, when the Poly Means Many bloggers chose this topic for November’s posts, I hadn’t really given the idea much thought. My first instinct was that I already have an orientation and I chose polyamory over monogamy so I thought this was going to be a pretty short post. Then I started wondering whether other people had already given some thought to the concept of polyamory as an orientation, and what I found forced me to sit back and take a longer look at the topic.

In 2010, Ann E. Tweedy of the Hamline University School of Law published a paper in the University of Cincinnati Law Review entitled Polyamory as a Sexual Orientation. The article looked at the possibility of expanding the definition of sexual orientation in employment law ‘to include other disfavored sexual preferences, specifically polyamory’. It’s a pretty big paper, so I have to admit to skipping to the conclusion where Tweedy states that ‘polyamory shares some of the important attributes of sexual orientation as traditionally understood, so it makes conceptual sense for polyamory to be viewed as part of sexual orientation’. As for the legal aspect, well, you’d better read the paper in full because it looks like the whole thing is far more complicated than those of us without legal knowledge could possibly imagine! More recently, Fearless Press published an interesting piece entitled Is Polyamory An Orientation Or A Lifestyle Choice? by Micah Schneider. In that article, Schneider offers up a nice analogy (regular readers of this series will know how much I like those!) where he points out:

If someone identifies as bisexual, and then begins a monogamous relationship with someone of the same sex, are they suddenly homosexual? Or straight, if it’s someone of the opposite sex? I don’t think so, and lots of bisexuals (maybe most) would agree. I believe that poly and mono are orientations, the same way that homosexuality, heterosexuality and bisexuality are.

It’s a nice way of putting it, and I am definitely one of those bisexuals who would agree with what he’s saying. Your relationship(s) don’t define you as polyamorous – you do! Hell, even Wikipedia says that ‘the term “polyamorous” can refer to the nature of a relationship at some point in time or to a philosophy or relationship orientation (much like gender or sexual orientation)’. This was all looking pretty convincing so far but, as you might imagine, it isn’t the only point of view I found on the topic. I think it’s always good to read both sides of the story, and so I made sure I had a look for writers who held an opposing view. It was never going to be easy to work this one out, so I’ve no idea why I thought it would be so cut and dried! There were a few posts on PolySkeptic earlier this year about orientation, including Polyamory is Not a Sexual Orientation where wfenza argues that:

There are a few problems with describing polyamory as a sexual orientation. The first of which is that polyamory is not sexual. Polyamory is about relationships, honesty, and intimacy […] Secondly, polyamory is not an orientation. Polyamory is not a physical desire or a feeling […] Almost everyone feels attraction for multiple people at the same time. This does not make them polyamorous.

I don’t agree that polyamory is not a physical desire or feeling, because I am completely sure that I desire open and honest relationships which do not have to be physically or emotionally monogamous. That’s certainly a feeling. So, what conclusion did I come to following my afternoon of research? Well, I have to admit that I’m still feeling a little bit conflicted. On the one hand, I don’t think I can exactly change back to how I was before I ‘found’ polyamory, but I also agree that it’s not a sexual orientation. Something tells me I may not ever get to the bottom of this conundrum.

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month six bloggers – ALBJ, An Open Book, Delightfully Queer, More Than Nuclear, Rarely Wears Lipstick, and The Boy With The Inked Skin – will write about their views on one of them.

22 thoughts on “Gay, straight, bi… poly?

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  1. Good review of the main arguments. Some folks I know use ‘relationship orientation’ to indicate that they view polyamory as an orientation, but on a different spectrum than sexual orientation, one which is about how you relate to people, and not who you relate to.

    1. That’s a very good idea, Jessica. It’s definitely something that needs extra clarification.

      Personally, I’m still unsure how I categorise it. Need to read more on the subject, I think. The rest of the Poly Means Many gang seem to think “both” or “does it matter?”, which is interesting.

  2. How are you still “conflicted” when you made it pretty clear in your own article that relationships themselves are NOT indicative of a “sexual” preference? If one is gay or straight, does their current relationship define their sexual orientation…even if it’s non-sexual? (As an example, how many married men came out as gay later in life…did that make them straight while they were married? I don’t think so.) Sexual orientation is just that…SEXUAL, and indicates ones “preference” no matter their current situation. Poly just means “more than one” and a lesbian can be poly with three girls and a gay can be poly with two other guys, just as a straight person could be poly with a few of the opposite sex. Poly is not a sexual “orientation.”

    1. It’s not a *sexual* orientation, but it might still be an orientation. A *relationship* orientation, perhaps? I don’t think it’s always a choice for people. Some most definitely choose poly, but others really do feel they were born that way. I guess I’m conflicted because I wasn’t sure that the “orientation or choice?” question could be answered with “both”. The more I think about it though… maybe it can?

      The title of the post was chosen because that is how most people view orientation when it comes to relationships (and I started with a question which I then explored), so maybe that’s why it seems confusing. Sorry if that’s the case.

  3. Got an error when I tried logging in with my twitter acct, so here it is separately – @XtraOrdnaryLife

  4. I think people like to use the term “orientation” to make it sound like poly isn’t a choice, but I don’t really understand why. Poly IS a choice! Being poly isn’t the same thing as having feelings for multiple people. Being poly is a choice that we make about how to express those feelings. Before I was poly, I was monogamous. I wasn’t lying to myself or in the closet. I was just in a different kind of relationship. Then (my wife and) I chose to be poly. It was a great choice. I don’t understand why people are so resistant to that idea.

    1. I like the clarification that you don’t choose to *be* poly, but you chose to *act* on those feelings. That makes perfect sense to me. One of my fellow Poly Means Many bloggers (An Open Book – has answered the question with choice, but many of the others say “both”, depending on the person. Everyone does poly differently, I suppose. It’s a choice for me, but I could see how/why some think of it as an orientation.

      1. The reason that I’m so resistant to the idea that poly is an orientation is that I think that most people could be poly if they wanted to. I don’t think we’re inherently different than the majority of people. Almost everyone feels attraction for multiple people at the same time, and many, many people who don’t consider themselves polyamorous have romantic (or romantic-like) feelings for more than one person at the same time. This is not the case with sexual orientations like homosexuality. I think describing poly in those terms gives up on the idea of poly going mainstream.

        Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that everyone should be poly, but I think the world would be a better place if more people rethought their ideas about the necessity of monogamy. I think when you describe polyamory as an orientation, it says that people who are currently mostly happy in mono relationships (like we were before we decided to be poly) just don’t have what it takes to be poly, and I strongly disagree with that.

      2. That’s very well put, wfenza! The more I read your comments, the more I’m convinced that poly is definitely a choice. I guess some people want to label it as an orientation to get the legal protection that would provide but, as you say, it doesn’t fit the criteria at all.

  5. Well, the legal side is a world all in its own (I’m a lawyer). The question of whether poly should be considered a sexual orientation in a LEGAL context is a completely different question from whether it should be considered an orientation in other contexts. I haven’t researched the issue, but I have read the Tweedy paper, and she makes a coherent case for it. I just think it’s a different question about whether we should think about it as an orientation in other contexts.

    As for WHY people want to describe it as an orientation? I think people want to say that it’s not a choice because they are tired of defending it. If people see it as a choice, they feel justified in questioning that choice. If it’s an inborn part of Who You Are, then people can’t make you justify it, and they have a harder time judging you for it. You were just born that way.

    1. Can you really split the types of labelling that way though? If poly was considered an orientation (of whatever type) in a legal sense, it’d be pretty difficult to turn around and say it was a choice in any other context. As for some poly folk wanting to label it an orientation because they’re tired of defending themselves… I can see why that would be simpler, but it would perhaps just generate a whole load more questions from people who just don’t think it’s anything other than a choice 🙂

      Delightfully Queer said that: “this could also be covered under ‘right to family life’ clauses for which appear in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the European Convention on Human Rights […] However, given that the rights stipulated in these articles are consistently being eroded and questioned under current immigration legislation, human rights discourses and family law, this seems a potentially weaker avenue to legal protection than classifying poly as an orientation”. What are your opinions on that version of the potential legal aspect?

      1. Sure you can! Lots of words have special meanings in the law. We call them “terms of art.” Especially where a statute is involved (such as a non-discrimination statute), words often has esoteric meanings that don’t apply elsewhere. For instance, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a “disabled” person is “a person who: (1) has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities; OR (2) has a record of such an impairment; OR (3) is regarded as having such an impairment.” That’s a pretty convoluted definition for normal speech, and lawyers fight endlessly about what it actually means. Under the ADA, an amputee with a functional prosthesis is not considered “disabled.” However, I think you or I, if we used the word “disabled,” would certainly include a person in that situation.

        The problem with “right to family life” clauses is that we don’t have any of them in America! The closest thing we have is a somewhat vaguely-defined (and constantly under attack) right to privacy, which arguably encompasses the right to marry the person of our choosing. If we ever establish a Constitutional right to polyamory, it will be through the right to privacy. We also have a right to equal protection of the laws, which can be helpful in certain contexts.

      2. “Terms of art”? What a lovely phrase! That’s a really interesting explanation of how this sort of thing works in a legal context too. Must get extremely confusing with so many definitions. It’s also interesting that the law works in different ways in each country. I don’t know if we have anything like the “right to privacy” in the UK.

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