With open relationships and non-monogamy increasingly entering the public eye as a sort of “radical” sexual freedom movement, the polyamory community needs to address a glaring elephant in its room: issues of class inequality.
I often hesitate when using the language of “privilege,” because personally, I feel the conversation around “privilege-checking” often implies that any activity tainted by the unequal distribution of freedom to participate in it is “inherently bad” and should not be done, lest you “enact privilege” upon others. (Example: “life-hacking is a white privilege, so you shouldn’t take advantage of it!”) I do not think this is true, especially not for polyamory.
But I’ve heard people say, “Polyamory is for rich, pretty people with too much time on their hands.” To some extent, I agree.
That is, someone working on minimum wage unsupported by their family might not have the time or resources to invest in developing multiple relationships—if they had a Google Calendar, it would probably be filled with work or time spent helping family members, not dinner dates. Having leisure time requires a certain kind of job and life structure. It might mean being well-educated, and let’s not pretend that our “meritocratic” academic institutions adequately account for systemic inequality. Plus, to some extent, the access to participate in a larger sexual community, whether through play parties, munches, or just an open, loving poly circle, requires a level of urbanism and metronormativity that excludes people who can’t afford to live in New York City, San Francisco, or other supposedly “poly” friendly places.
And frankly, I sometimes feel the “face of poly” in certain circles reeks of an elitist superiority complex, which projects itself as an “exclusive, special” place for the “intellectually enlightened,” “sexually liberated” neo-free lovin’ decadents. It disregards the cost of sexual health, pregnancy, money, and time that affect people without an built-in safety net. Thus, a polyamorous party can be starkly alienating for a working class, non-urban individual, especially if they’re also the only person of color in the room. (Let’s not even get started on heterosexism in swinger communities.)
But despite what I believe is a very valid critique of parts of the poly community—especially the parts getting face-time with the media— as white, gender-normative, and generally well-to-do, I don’t think this means that working class poly people don’t exist (we do!), or that poly is “bad” for social justice. Just because something requires privileges to do successfully doesn’t mean that it is an unjust activity.
The analogy I use for polyamory is healthy living. We all know that eating healthy food is a generally “good” thing to do, but access to the resources for that lifestyle can be costly and geographically circumscribed. A gym membership can be expensive for someone living paycheck to paycheck. Processed food is cheap and horrible for you, but for someone who is poor, it might be all there is.
Similarly, monogamy may seem like a far safer choice for a poor person—without access to birth control or adequate healthcare, having multiple partners is extremely costly in terms of risks of pregnancy and disease. There is also, of course, the added social risk of being in a conservative community.
Anyone who participates in polyamory MUST recognize that your ability to “be poly” is not a given—you are goddamn lucky to be able to be in a place (physically, socially, financially) where you can love freely.
Of course, that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be poly. I don’t quite agree with the idea that the solution to addressing privileges is to relinquish privileges. Rather, I prefer the idea of actively working to expand and share privileges. Some “white” privileges, for example, like being treated nicely by the cops, are things that I believe everyone should have.
Everyone should be able to be treated nicely, to have doors opened for them, to life hack, eat healthily, and love freely. Everyone should have access to contraception and sexual health support. Everyone should be able to resist the industrial rat-race and have time dedicated to loving themselves and others.
So how do polyamorous people take steps to address this inequality of access? I have a few thoughts, many of which are enumerated by Black Girl Dangerous.
- Avoid telling people that everyone is “naturally non-monogamous” and evangelizing poly if they aren’t interested or are in an extremely unsupportive environment. Even if the “nature” argument were true, sexual and romantic behavior can be highly determined by what allows someone to socially survive. If I’m a young girl growing up in say, a conservative Southern family, monogamy might be the only way to avoid being ostracized as a “slut” and disowned. I support anyone’s interest in polyamory, but not at a cost of their safety and wellbeing.
- Don’t create economies of scarcity among your partners. This is pretty standard shit, but it bears repeating: Actively preventing your partners from seeing other people if YOU are allowed to see other people (for jealousy, insecurity, possessive/whatever reasons), is not only an incredibly shitty thing to do, but it creates an economy where people can exploit the poly community, increasing inequality and re-enacting awful Darwinian competition. Consensual poly-mono partnerships and polyfidelity are, of course, fine.
- Work actively to campaign for sexual and reproductive freedom for all, especially those who can’t afford it. Support intersectional activism that addresses race, class, gender, sexuality, not just the organizations with the biggest names and the nicest PR campaigns.
Overall, I actually believe that some aspects of poly can be extremely helpful for working-class people of color to resist the exploitative, capitalistic structures of monogamy (#FrederickEngels). As a quick example, without access to birth control, the cost of having a child as a single parent may be lower if the person has a network of other supportive partners and lovers who will assist in care-taking.
But in order to be a community that aligns with radical sexual politics, polyamory needs to be inclusive of intersectional issues like class. Polyamory must recognize its importance in the lives of the underclass and make space for that class in its culture, in order to truly claim to be a movement about freedom, liberation, and justice.