It’s not uncommon to see people everywhere today, both online and in-person, conflating polyamory with swinging. Yet, these two types of relationships aren’t the same thing by any stretch of the imagination. Having experienced both, I can say, that while they share a few similarities, namely the “more than one person” part of the relationship equation, they have many, many more differences than similarities, and those differences can often be more pronounced than the similarities. Pretty much the only similarity between the two is that at least one partner involved has sex with more than one partner, but that’s not even always the case in polyamory. It’s time for some hard truths which distinguish the idea of polyamory from that of swinging — truths that some people won’t like and don’t want to accept, but it needs to be said so we can all get on the same page of what our lives are and are not like.
It’s interesting when I tell people about my relationship and often receive quite the litany of either confusion or disapproval, and when it’s the latter, the reasons mentioned almost invariably turn out to be someone mistaking polyamory for swinging. I’m often told that my relationship is based solely on sexual liberty and wildness when nothing could be further from the truth.
I know all the abundant cliches, “polyamory means different things to different people,” and all of the other things commonly said, but words have definitions and definitions have meaning, and having different interpretations of those meanings doesn’t mean we can parade around pretending that we’re doing things we’re not and not be called out on it; true polyamory is extremely rare.
No, having a side-guy or a play-bunny join in the bedroom with a laundry list of rules pre-established by the primary couple is not at all the same thing as cohabitating with multiple partners, or maintaining enduring relationships with multiple partners, complete with shared responsibilities; and while I know people might get offended by this, it’s true. We need to distinguish between sex and having an actual, bona fide relationship with several people at one time, the latter of which is a definitive factor of polyamory. We need to stop pretending that every ethically non-monogamous and sexual fling is the same thing as a deep, lasting connection and an ongoing relationship. We need to distinguish between these because people should be clear about their level of commitment and intimacy.
My current polyamorous relationship, for instance, like many others who have relationships similar to mine, is a closed relationship — there just happens to be three of us. We all cohabitate and live, interestingly, both as a unified group and as separate coexisting relationships. So, with all due respect to those who speak of polyamory as an excuse to have unbridled sex — be they in proponents of the practice or mere observers from the world of the monogamous — the moment someone begins saying things like this, it becomes quite obvious that they don’t understand these two lifestyles and just conflating the two different ideas. This is why I’m always sort of confused about there being “polyamory groups” where people go to seek out sex.
It should also be noted here that I’m rather averse to many communities which claim to be about polyamory, communities which are often nothing more than a guise for (often predatory) swinging activities under a different name — polyamory just sounds better than swinging and unfortunately, the term has been co-opted by people who want to pretend their sex has more meaning than it actually does, or that sex isn’t their primary purpose when it actually is.
Sex with strangers is not polyamory, lest every one-night-stand be thrown into the same category as full-blown monogamous relationships. Would you stay with both or all of your partners through a prolonged battle with cancer? Questions like these are what polyamory is all about, because, after all, polyamory is about developing meaningful relationships, not unbridled sexual liberty. In our relationships, we ask ourselves these questions if they’re truly impactful and meaningful to us.
Misconceptions abound, with many thinking polyamory is nothing more than an excuse for ravenous sex, when the reality is quite different. Our relationships are often like most others, they’re pretty mundane most of the time, yet pretty joyous: we live together, we shop together, we have Netflix series’ that we binge-watch with one another, we share the chores, help one another with bills and taxes, we sometimes go out to eat, we work a lot, and go to the movies; and, of course, we do all of these things separately as well, unlike swinging, which is mostly a couple’s activity revolving around sex. These aren’t the only things that differentiate polyamory from swinging. Things like commitments for the future and willingness to sacrifice also come to mind. If polyamory is differentiated from swinging by its romantic element and level of attachment, rather than just sex, there is one central question that we can ask ourselves to figure out which camp we happen to fall into:
What would happen to this relationship if something happened and sex was no longer possible with this person? Would the relationship continue? Would it end?
This is the central question, to me, that differentiates the so-called real from fake, the serious from the sexual, the curious from the committed: if a relationship is not predicated upon sex, then suppose we were to remove sex from the equation entirely, the relationship must hold — it must endure.
…otherwise, the rest of it was just a song-and-dance performed to maintain the sex we were enjoying and feel slightly less guilty about it. And there’s another big issue that I see today, with many sex clubs and swinging groups becoming breeding grounds for predatory sexual behaviors, things that I’ve avoided always by not going places where sex was the fundamental aspect of the social scene. This is why it’s pertinent that we distinguish accurately and definitively between the two, so people may know what sort of scene they’re getting themselves into — is it someplace where you have to be on guard against sexual advances, or an atmosphere where people are truly seeking lasting relationships?
They’re truly, very different lifestyles, in the end. One is based on romance, love, commitment, fidelity, honesty and trust, the other is based on sexual adventure, personal freedom, exploration from within a long-term relationship, honesty, hopefully safe sex, and hedonism, and I make no moral judgments about either, here, I’m simply asking that we stop pretending that these two are the same thing. If people want to gather and have vast and varied sexual relationships, hey, do you, be happy, enjoy yourself, and stay safe, but it would be handy for people to understand that different peopel are interested in different relationship types. Perhaps a new system or a new set of terms is in order? I think we may be approaching that point.
Is it a “polycommitted” relationship or “polysexual,” the former being for those interested in true, lasting polyamory, the latter for those interested in poly-sexuality only? Well, personally, I like the sound of both as descriptive terms as possible alternatives to the blanket term “polyamory” being thrown about without care. All in all, focusing on just the fact that multiple persons are involved is the wrong way to go because it ignores some rather enormous differences in lifestyle that should be addressed, and we should seek to discern the differences in our lifestyles with a greater accuracy, whatever that may look like. For further reading: