~ November 2021 ~ Polyamory is trendy right now, there’s no doubt about it. Depictions of open relationships are regularly showing up in media, and the ethics of consent are discussed openly in the public sphere with a degree of nuance that didn’t exist 20 years ago. But increased visibility of non-monogamy and its variants doesn’t mean we all know what these things mean in practice. So what exactly is polyamory, and how does it differ from ethical non-monogamy, open relationships? Is it different from polygamy or polyandry, concepts that existed long before the sexual revolution?
Though polyamory and non-monogamy are now fairly ubiquitous terms, their exact meaning can shift from person to person or couple to couple. At its most simple definition, polyamory is a compound of two Greek root words (poly + amory), which come together to mean “many loves.” Non-monogamy (sometimes referred to as “ethical non-monogamy” or ENM) is similarly intuitive on a grammatical level: it’s a sexual ethic and those who practice it do not participate in monogamous mating practices.
But what do these terms mean in practice? Is polyamory just sexual chaos, as some of its critics claim? How is it different from polygamy?
How are the terms polyamory and ethical non-monogamy different from polygamy and polyandry?
The terms polyamory and ethical non-monogamy are often used interchangeably by contemporary practitioners. Other terms used for non-monogamy in centuries prior have been specifically gendered: polygamy, which means “many wives,” with “-gyny” being the same root word that gives us words like “gynecology” and implies that the person having the many wives is a man. Similarly, polyandry means “many husbands” and implies that the person who has the husbands is a woman.
While these terms describe practices that are still around today, they’re no longer as common. Instead, use of terms polyamory and ethical non-monogamy have risen in popularity because they are de-gendered—usage of the term “polyamory,” in particular, arose in the 1990s, Dulcinea Alex Pitagora, NYC-based psychotherapist and sex therapist tells Health.
Okay, so what do polyamory and ethical non-monogamy mean?
A word on non-monogamy in general
In 1997, the book The Ethical Slut was first published, and while it remains a solid primer on non-monogamy, some of the language now reads as a bit dated. Even with the widespread popularity of The Ethical Slut, people are still often very confused about what ENM is and how it works, thanks to socially-enforced monosexual normativity. “One common misconception that shows up in my office frequently when working with people who are exploring non-monogamy is that there is a specific or correct way to be poly or open, or to do any kind of ethical/consensual non-monogamy,” says Pitagora. “The fact is, these categories and labels can be a helpful starting point for conversations with partners, but they need to be defined and agreed upon by the parties involved, and nobody else. One person’s poly relationship can look a lot like someone else’s open relationship, whereas another person’s poly can look a lot like someone else’s relationship anarchy.”
That said, there are some trends in how terms are used that seem worth noting. Polyamory is most often used to describe having multiple long-term partnerships that are often romantic and intimate in nature (or at least being open to that possibility). Beyond this, the definition of polyamory varies significantly from person to person. Sometimes it can involve multiple degrees of commitment—some “polycules” or groups of polyamorous people all connected to each other romantically live together communally.
Polyamory may also involve some partners being local and live-in, and others partners living long-distance and spending parts of the year with each other. Some polyamorous partnerships are not sexual, or have specific expressions of sexuality that vary partner to partner—someone might have an asexual (or “ace”) nesting partner (home-sharing), and not be sexually intimate with them in the same ways as they are sexually involved with other partners. And some are the kinds of relationships where if logistics and distance work out, the partners are sexually involved, but are not seriously invested in each other when apart (these are sometimes called “comets”).
Ethical non-monogamy (ENM)
Ethical non-monogamy often means something similar to polyamory as described above, but that, again, varies situationally. Usually it means that an ENM-practicing individual will have different degrees of commitment (or non-commitment) with partners but be very open and communicative about what these attachments are like and what boundaries exist sexually and romantically.
For example, someone might be practicing ENM and be romantically invested in their primary (or hierarchically prioritized first) partner, and sexually involved with multiple other people but not romantically invested in other partners. While communication and boundaries are a key tenet of ethical non-monogamy (hence the word “ethical”), many people in polyamorous relationships also describe those things being necessary to maintain healthy connections, so again, these definitions do somewhat vary situationally and from person to person.
Other adjacent terms
You may also hear terms and phrases like “swinging” or “a one-penis policy” used in the context of non-monogamous sexual play—these terms refer more to sexual habits rather than romantic relationships. Swinging is usually couples playing sexually with other couples, in tandem, or a couple playing with a third. The “one-penis policy” is usually something that happens when a cis man is uncomfortable with his cis wife’s desire to explore sexually, so he limits her interactions to be only with other women. This can create situations where a couple is “unicorn hunting”—a heterosexual cis couple seeking out a bisexual cis woman to have sex with jointly.
These situations are often considered by polyamorous individuals to be in poor taste and queerphobic, so it’s important not to assume that someone who says they are polyamorous is participating in these sexual tropes (although they might be).
Other structures that exist within the world of ethical non-monogamy are things like relationship anarchy, which often eschews labels and cultivates a relational approach based on the principle that love is abundant and not a commodity that can be used up, and that each relationship is different and should be treated as such rather than being forced to conform to a societal norm.
What about jealousy? And STIs?
One common myth thrown around often in (or about) the polyamory community is that jealousy shouldn’t exist if you can just communicate well enough about your needs. While this may dissipate the emotion’s prevalence for some, Jesse Kahn, LCSW-R, CS, director and sex therapist at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in NYC, tells Health that it’s actually pretty normal to experience jealousy and worth sitting with those feelings instead of rejecting them outright. “It’s easier in the moment to try to reduce jealousy to a ‘negative’ emotion than to examine what that feeling is actually trying to communicate. Jealousy can come up in all kinds of relationships, and ultimately, jealousy is an opportunity to look inward and to spark conversation.”
Fear of jealousy and insecurity in polyamory may come from internalized mononormative and heteronormative believes, says Pitagora. “We were all socialized [to believe that] we have a limited supply of love and intimacy to share, and that we can possess other people. Jealousy is rooted in insecurity that comes from this internalized mono/heteronormativity, and when it comes up, it presents an excellent opportunity to be introspective about where it’s coming from.”
Similarly, fear of STIs shouldn’t prevent people curious about non-monogamy from trying it. Because of the heavy emphasis on consent in the polyamory community (not just a “yes” in the moment, but also previously obtained consent from other partners on degrees of sexual contact and kinds of protection used, etc.), some research shows that it’s actually likely that polyamorous folks will have a lower risk of contracting an STI than someone casually practicing serial monogamy, due to things like a higher frequency of STI testing and greater condom use.
Should I try polyamory? Is it a sexual orientation or a choice?
There’s no right answer to these questions, it seems. Kahn thinks that answering these questions is an exploratory process that is deeply personal. “It’s about knowing what works best for you and your relationship, and co-creating that relationship with your partner(s),” they say. “I think there are lessons that we can learn from polyamory though! Some of those lessons are that: it’s okay to be attracted to multiple people, communication is crucial, and it’s up to you to define your relationship(s).” Dr. Pitagora agrees with him: “The bottom line is that whatever your relationship structure looks like, as long as there’s a basis of ongoing consent and clarity on agreements between partners, then they’re doing it right.”
It’s more complicated than just individual preferences and meeting situational needs, of course. Non-monogamy has been practiced in every culture throughout time, but in our society today monogamy and heterosexuality are the norms impressed upon us from a young age.
“The framing of something as an innate personal characteristic implies it’s not influenced by socialization, which is never the case given we don’t grow up or live in vacuums,” says Dr. Pitagora. “…[P]eople are born with certain inherent potential for characteristics that may or may not be expressed depending on a variety of external inputs, like social, cultural, temporal, and geographical locations, as well as internal resources like resilience and openness to new experiences.” Knowing this all, however, doesn’t mean it’s easy or possible to slough off acculturated norms, or that doing so would be the right thing for your relationship.
Kahn encourages a curiosity-based approach to these questions, rather than one that seeks a set end goal or pre-conceived answer. “Start by educating yourself on polyamory, various polyamorous structures,” they say, “explore and think about what about your past/current relationship structures worked and didn’t work, and in your fantasies what they might’ve looked like instead.”