Poly means many: Challenging assumptions

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts can be found at www.polymeansmany.com. This month, our topic is “assumptions”.

I was thinking recently about the overlap between negative assumptions made about poly people, and those made about bisexuals. In some places, these assumptions are nigh-on indistinguishable.

A fairly common stereotype of bisexuals and poly folk alike is that we’re promiscuous. It’s assumed that we are thoroughly unable to hold down a relationship, that our lives are a non-stop disco of wild orgies, a parade of disconnected genitalia flailed around willy-nilly. Sometimes this is couched in a concern for our health (or, more likely, the health of the community, because if a proper person accidentally has sex with one of us sinful sluts then it’s game over for them and their nice normal life). Other times it’s just a massive moral outcry. But it’s rooted in the thing: we have a lot of sex and we kind of suck at relationships.

Now, I could write a passionate screed about how this is categorically untrue about me, and how this whole assumption is a vicious smear on our communities, except I’d be lying if I did.

do have a lot of sex. And I am not interested in having a domestic partnership relationship. I kind of suck at those sort of relationships, because they’re really not for me.

Now, it’s all too easy for the poly and bisexual communities to denounce people like me, those who live up to the negative stereotypes that people hold about us, except this is throwing us under the bus. It’s saying “oh, don’t be silly, we’re as normal and nice as you, let’s forget about those aberrant hussies over there”. In doing this, it’s easy to perpetuate exactly the same negative assumptions.

Instead of taking the easy route, what we need to do is examine exactly where the negativity in these assumptions comes from and then smash all of that. Unfortunately, there’s rather a lot of smashing to do.

Some of the negativity comes from biphobia, a general societal negative attitude towards bisexuals. This is simply plain bigotry, dressed up as a number of other readily-available prejudices ingrained in society. Biphobia is grindingly present from both heterosexuals and gay people, and both groups need to stop doing it.

Some of it comes from the dominant “relationship escalator” model of relationships, wherein relationships that do not follow a prescribed course are devalued. The relationship escalator in turn is likely rooted to some extent in ownership of property–marriage is, after all, historically a legal arrangement to help sort out who owns what. While we are no longer necessarily expected to marry, it’s no coincidence that a relationship isn’t considered meaningful until you’re both sharing possessions and a house, which is a patent nonsense.

Some of it comes from slut-shaming. Our society does not like it when people are having a lot of sex. There is nothing more threatening to a misogynist than a woman who is mistress of her own sexuality (and, likewise, anyone who is not a heterosexual man).

All of this leads to an environment wherein if we do not conform to a fairly rigid set of behavioural expectations, we are hung out to dry. We are punished for not marching to a beat that never sounded right to us.

The fact is, I’m happy. I’ve found what works for me and I am living and loving. I know full well that negative assumptions are made about what I do, even by people within my community, but do you know what? Fuck that shit. In failing to challenge the negativity inherent in these assumptions, we will find ourselves stuck at merely being tolerated rather than liberated and being truly able to love freely. Even when one does not experience it, the constraints that lead to negativity bind us all, pointing many of us in a direction which we see as the only choice there really is.

So let us smash the negativity and challenge these assumptions right from their root. It’s a hell of a lot more work, but it is work that is ultimately worth doing.


2 responses to “Poly means many: Challenging assumptions

  • mhairi

    I know little about biphobia aimed at men, but biphobia aimed at women seems to have some distinct roots.

    The most vicious biphobia I ever came across was within the lesbian community of the 80s. This had a strong political lesbian orientation, and there was an attitude towards bi women that they were really dilettante political lesbians – sleeping with women for the radical kudos before settling down with a nice husband and 2.4 children. They were very much stereotyped as femme submissives blamed for introducing butch/femme dynamics and the introduction of BDSM -both of which were very much out of political fashion in the heavily policed lesbianism of the time. There was even the dental dams phenomenon, where lesbians would insist on using dental dams with bi-identified women (and even sometimes on other lesbians who didn’t have a gold star)

    A more general form of that was that bi-women would leave their lovers as soon as they wanted to settle down because a lesbian relationship wasn’t an approved “relationship escalator” one, leaving their hurt (and fully lesbian) lover behind. And indeed in my 30s I watched a lot of the bi women that I knew do exactly that, and have since heard some of their husbands joke about their wives’ “lesbian phase”. I even heard of a wedding (I wasn’t invited but heard of it second hand) where her “conversion” was featured in the best man’s speech as a backslap to the groom.

    More recently the most prominent form of biphobia seems to be the “bi for the guy” phenomenon, where bi (or indeed straight) women are pressurised into threesomes with other women, based on the desires of their male partner(s) rather than their own desire.

    Women in relationships with men gain privilege but that’s tempered by the patriarchy, where women in relationships with men live with the expectations of sexual normativity – which extend beyond just sleeping with men, but monogamy, marriage and life-long pairing which lesbians tend to be spared to some extent; as they are already deviant, another deviance isnt such a big deal; and also they live with the inbuilt sexism and even misogyny of their male partner who pushes them to fulfill their own sexual wishes including threesomes.

    All of this biphobia against women seems to come from other women (I’ve never heard a man yet express biphobia aimed at women, most either consider that they have “corrected” their partner because they are such a superior lover, or scheme about how their partner’s sexuality can be worked to their advantage)

    IMHO biphobia – at least among women – seems to stem from victim blaming: those who are eventually pressurised into heteronormative relationships are letting the side down (ignoring the massive pressure that there is to enter such, quite apart the fact that true freedom not only means freedom to be devient, but also to be normative), or are being sexually exploited by their male partners and are consequently weak willed.

  • Dave B

    Really great and fascinating comment, Mhairi. Thanks for taking the time. x

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