As society changes and social interactions evolve, it’s only natural this would give way to novel ideas in how to structure families and interpersonal relations. Polyamory is seen as the latest novelty as more and more people find themselves disillusioned with the constraints of monogamy. But scholars of history and social anthropology understand that monogamy was always the experiment. Instead of a novelty, polyamory had previously been the cultural standard as tribal existence naturally lent itself to such arrangements.
The experiment of monogamy began before Christianity (Price, 2011, para. 6) yet the writings of the Bible do not label it as such nor appear to favor one model over the other. In western civilization, there did not appear to be a need to define and label the practice of monogamy until the 17th century. Mono derives from the Greek root monos or single and combines with gamos, the Greek root for marriage. Thus, monogamy literally means a single marriage, but is commonly used to represent a marriage between two people in which sexual fidelity and exclusivity was expected. This model gained in popularity, growing to replace the poly construct in time. Yet, as the societal dynamics change, many question whether monogamy continues to offer the benefits enjoyed in prior generations.
For thousands of years monogamy was presented as an escape from a life as a spinster or a bachelor, the former unable to attract a mate and the latter unwilling to commit to a mate. Thus, spinsters and bachelors were viewed as less successful than their coupled counterparts. The personal, social, economic and practical advantages abounded for married persons while those who remained single, by choice or by circumstance, were ostracized to the margins of the population. There remains this stigma, in rejecting monogamy one is embracing a life as a spinster or bachelor. But this disregards the true variety of choices that exist in relationship dynamics and that have always existed. There is a difference between a single person who is inclined toward monogamy and is in pursuit a spouse and a person who is single because he or she rejects the ownership model of monogamy and is seeking an alternative form of relating. These definitions help to delineate those differences.
Before the word “monogamy” was coined, there would have been no need for its counterpart. But now, as we emerge from this longitudinal social experiment of sexual exclusivity, we ask, “If not monogamy, then what?” The opposite of monogamy, would be non-monogamy and would therefore refer to “not a marriage between only two people.” This might include no marriage and celibacy at one end of a continuum to multiple marriages and mutiple sexual partners at the other end. Along the way there are as many varieties as there are persons and preferences.
Non-monogamous as a personal label is, thus, overbroad and nonspecific. The term informs us of what the person does not believe in, yet we have no understanding of what his or her beliefs do include and embrace. This label does not help us to gravitate to others with similar beliefs though it would help us to avoid complicating our interactions with monogamous folk. We need further definition.
Polyamory and other words inimical to its practice, such as compersion, are still not recognized as words by most dictionaries. This can make it difficult when newcomers who are curious about the poly option struggle to figure out the words everyone is tossing about so casually. This page is intended to define key poly terminology as the blog author understands those terms. This is intended as help in understanding how these terms are used on this site and not as a definitive resource or official pronouncement of their meaning. I anticipate that these definitions may change over time, based both on the expanding nature of the poly practice as well as my personal understanding of its linguistic acceptance and so this page may be updated to reflect that evolution and document its etymology.
Labels are rather meaningless to those unfamiliar with their meanings or to those who have ascribed wholly different meanings. An alien from another planet would not find it helpful to know that one self-identifies as a “geek” without knowing what that label meant. Labels can be laden with unstated expectations born of cultural or generational understandings. For example: once a bride is married, what are the expectations of a wife? What if the wife’s understanding of her role is not shared by that of her husband or her in-laws? There will undoubtedly be conflict that follows.
Conversely, labels can be most helpful when internally imposed by the label-wearer to identify oneself to others for the purpose of attracting like-minded others. The peacock proudly displays his plumage to attract not birds of prey or other mammals, but female peacocks with whom he has most in common and he is most attracted. Consider the label we affix to our own lifestyle choices to be our poly plumage: the way to describe the feathers that define us so that we might attract those who are most attracted to what we have to offer. However, unless we are all in agreement as to what these terms mean, the label will not help in this goal and could end up frustrating this purpose. It is helpful, therefore, if the broader community has a mutual understanding of the labels we use to self-identify.
Polyamory: even the etymology and root construction of this word is controversial as it combines a Greek root poly, meaning “many, or several,” with a Latin suffix amor, or “love.” There are critics who say that is wrong. (Carey, 2011.) But according to who? Those who created the rules for monogamy and exclusivity? Those who claim seafood and cheese should never cross paths? Those who proselytize white is not to be worn after labor day?
I find the mix-and-match of the Greek and Latin terms to be fully reflective of how polyamory embraces variety and “more than one.” Choosing either Greek or Latin would be what monogamists would elect. Poly means having both! Combining the two and not having to elect between one or the other makes perfect sense.
The definition I ascribe to for polyamory is “the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of all involved.” (Significant Connections Counseling, 2014.) Synonyms include consensual, ethical or responsible non-monogamy. But this term is not the counter-opposite to monogamy as it exists irrespective of marriage and instead embraces all open relationships or the proclivity toward such an arrangement involving multiple intimate partners all of whom know and consent.
The terms most juxtaposed to monogamy would be polygamy, or a husband with multiple wives or polyandry, a wife with multiple husbands. A related term is polygyny, which would be a polygamous arrangement organized for the purpose of combining child rearing efforts. Thus, each of these three terms describes a status that one elects and enters into formally, through a religious or civil marital ceremony. Monogamy is recognized and revered in the religious ceremony of matrimony. While the United States is beginning to expand its tolerance for same-sex marriages, the western culture has not yet permitted marriage to extend to multiple partners so as to permit a polyamorous arrangement to be fully sanctified by religious or civil ceremony. Thus, its practice continues to be considered to be a fringe departure from mainstream expectations without this religious and legal sanctification.
Yet while polyamory includes polygyny, polygamy and polyandry, there are a plenitude of other scenarios this broader term encompasses. Polyamory is not determined by religious or legal understandings, but refers to both a lifestyle choice, as in a conscious decision to remain single but polyamorous, but also to an orientation for a relationship style: a proclivity toward multiple partners and an aversion to sexual exclusivity. One can be polyandrous only if one is engaged in a marriage between one woman and multiple men. One can be polyamorous, however, even if not married, even if not sexually active and even if not dating. The former cluster of terms define a legal or social status while the term polyamory defines a relationship orientation. Much like a sexual orientation, ones relationship orientation is often pre-destined, but this “destiny” is often hijacked by societal pressures to obtain religious or legal sanctification for ones’ choices.
Compersion is the empathic feeling of joy when one loved one invests in and takes pleasure in the romantic or sexual experiences of his or her partner. Considered the antithesis of jealousy, this embraces broader feelings of happiness to emcompass both sexual and routine activities, provided these activities bring pleasure to those we love. (Urban Dictionary, 2008.) Contrast this with its related but more sexually limited term, candaulism, which refers to the sexual titillation one gets from sharing ones partner sexually and experiencing the pleasure that partner receives voyeuristically.
Imagine the joy of watching your lover prepare for a first date? And the happiness when your lover gushes with the euphoria of New Relationship Energy (NRE)? These reach to compersion whereas candualism is limited to more prurient interests.
Compersion, like polyamory, is not for everyone. Kamala Devi, celebrity pioneer of the polyamorous lifestyle, points out that it takes a secure person who can trust in the uniqueness that they offer to their partners. Those secure in their uniqueness are particularly suited for polyamorous relationships as they will not be threatened when those whom they love are able to experience pleasure and love from sources other than themselves. Secure in one’s uniqueness, no amount of first-date anticipation or new relationship energy would detract from the strength of the bond that is shared between two people when those two people truly take pleasure in the other’s pleasure. There can be no conflict in such a situation, as presents itself in monogamous constraints, when one partner’s pleasure is otherwise curtailed because of the expectations of exclusivity and ownership imposed by the monogamous arrangement.
Poly-kink broadly refers to the experience of sexual kink activities between three or more persons. While those who gravitate to kink activities tend to be more accepting of multiple partner arrangements, this is not always the case. While those who gravitate to poly are not necessarily prone to kink, a sexual positiveness that generally pervades the poly mindset accepts kink as a consensual sexual activity that others enjoy.
The sapio sexual is one who is sexually aroused by the intelligent expression of others. A poly-sapio is one who enjoys sexual arousal via a variety of different intellectually-gifted individuals. A natural connection exists between sapio and poly. As a lover of knowledge would not limit themselves to a single source or a single topic but would seek to absorb as much knowledge as possible, so too does the sapio sexual seek out a variety of intellectual stimuli. While as individuals our intellectualism is limited, collectively our collaborative capabilities are infinite. Thus, sapio sexuals naturally seek multiple stimuli to satisfy a variety of intellectual stimuli and thus are pre-inclined to seek out poly-sapio relationships.
Bisexuality, or the sexual attraction to more than one gender, is presently undergoing a shift in definition as society recognizes more than two genders and as the societal understanding and acceptance of pansexuals, those who are attracted to persons irrespective of gender, increases. When one fully embraces ones own bisexuality, choosing or limiting oneself to experience pleasure only from one gender can be viewed as a sacrifice; a denial of the variety available. Thus, polyamory and bisexuality, as with sapio sexuality, are naturally aligned and complimentary.
Poly fidelity refers to an exclusive arrangement between multiple people. The participants in a poly fidelitous structure limit their sexual activities to those in their group. Such arrangements are similar to monogamy in that the available partners are limited and proscribed and as each partner complicitly extends decision making authority over their sexual autonomy to others in the group. In layman’s language, a member of a poly fidelitous triad would need the consent of both partners to engage in sexual relations outside the triad, much like a spouse subjugates the ability of the other to engage in extra marital relations in a monogamous relationship.
Defining what polyamory and its related antecedents are is helpful, but it is just as helpful to identify those behaviors and activities that are not included in the definition. As consent is key to the definition of polyamory, the absence of consent would render the relationship non-consensual and not polyamorous. Because the practice of polygamy is exploited by those who exploit children in predatory cults, some unfamiliar with the terminology are quick to confuse these practices with polyamory. But these cults do not practice polyamory as the participation of the children is not consensual, and their practice of polygamy is also subverted by the lack of consent and legal authority the children have to engage in such a marital contract.
In a monogamous relationship when one individual seeks to open that relationship to other sexually intimate partners but does not inform his or her remaining partners of this decision before acting, we label that individual a “cheater.” In poly language, that person is engaging in nonmonogamy, but without the consent of all involved, so this practice is also not truly polyamory. Thus, a synonym of cheating is non-consensual non-monogamy. Cheating occurs in situations where one partner is limiting the choices of another and the other partner still fulfills their needs but is dishonest in doing so. In polyamory, where choices are not limited and honesty is encouraged, cheating is not a frequent occurrence. Where it could occur in poly is with poly fidelitous arrangements that impose limits on the sexual autonomy of its participants.
By understanding the definitions we can have a broader understanding of what the polyamory model of relating offers those who seek to explore its possibilities, as well as appreciating what polyamory does not include. This understanding can only further honest dialogue within the community to assist each Poly Peep in his or her individual journey of self-idealization.
Carey, S. (2011, November 28). The monstrous indecency of hybrid etymology. Sentence first. Retrieved from: http://stancarey.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/the-monstrous-indecency-of-hybrid-etymology/
Price, M. (2011, September 9). Why we think monogamy is normal: How polygamy became an “exotic exception.” Psychology Today. Retrieved from: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/darwin-eternity/201109/why-we-think-monogamy-is-normal
Significant Connections Counseling. (2014). Therapy for people who live outside normal. Retrieved from: http://www.significantconnections.com/resources/polyamory
Urban Dictionary (2008, April 8). Compersion. Retrieved from: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Compersion