Street art in Clarion Alley, San Francisco

What Does Polyamory Have to Do With Sexual Orientation? For Me, A Lot.

For some people, polyamory and sexual orientation are entirely different things: one is a sexual preference, the other a relationship style.

“Polyamory,” after all, means being open to more than one lover. If you’re straight, then you’re open to more than one opposite-sex partner; if you’re gay, you’re open to more than one same-sex lover; if you’re bi- or pan-sexual, then perhaps one or more of each. Right?

But polyamory isn’t just about sex: some polyamorous partners maintain a romantic relationship even after their initial sexual attraction has passed. Others are asexual, and develop partnerships that blur the lines between platonic and romantic relationships.

In many cases, polyamory is about stepping off the relationship escalator: of acknowledging that a healthy relationship doesn’t necessarily mean dating -> love -> marriage -> family.

Rather, it’s about asking the question, what is the most authentic relationship I can pursue with this person, at this point in time?

Sometimes, the answer can be surprising. Maybe the person who you ruled out “settling down” with becomes a part of your life in some other capacity: a long-distance lover; a BDSM partner; a metamour. Maybe there are other relationship structures that you didn’t know you were open to, such as a multi-parner triad or a quad.

Polyamory brings up many possibilities, and opens the door to a different kind of “bi”-sexuality — one more in line with the way my mind functions, and, I think, many other men as well.

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When I was growing up, the only models that I had for adult relationships were heterosexual, monogamous ones: my parents, my teachers, even the movies and sitcoms I watched. It seemed inevitable that I would grow up and get married someday.

At the same time, the models that I had for male relationships were equally unimaginative: either platonic friendship, or the still-controversial notion of “same-sex marriage”.

Within that framework, it seemed natural and logical for me to only pursue relationships with women — not because I wasn’t curious about, or open to, same-sex experiences, but because I thought that if I were going to step onto that relationship escalator at all, it would be with a female partner.

It was with women that I felt most comfortable with all of the steps on the escalator — love, sex, romance, marriage. I might be open to some experiences with men, but since I wasn’t interested in all of the aspects that seemed integral to a relationship, I ruled out any connections altogether.

Maybe, I thought, I’d “experiment” with a guy before I got married — that seemed like the only option, if dating and romance were out.

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In college, I ended up in a relationship with a woman that was, by default, monogamous. But still, I had the lingering feeling that after this relationship, and before I got married for good, I would set aside some time to try new things and push my boundaries.

Otherwise, what would happen? Would I turn into the repressed, middle-aged married man in Far From Heaven, seeking out clandestine same-sex encounters behind my wife’s back? Would we become the dysfunctional swinging couple in The Ice Storm?

The idea that I might be lucky enough to find someone who shared my sense of curiosity and adventure — who not only accepted an open marriage, but wanted it too — seemed unlikely.

The idea of finding more than one person — a network of lovers, in multiple cities, all aware of and OK with each other? Harder still.

How, exactly, would one manage that — unless you were rich, or famous, or very persuasive? It seemed like uncharted territory: a type of relationship style that may have existed in the past, or in other cultures, but was impossible to make work in modern-day America.

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Fortunately, I was wrong. Not only do these forms of relationships exist, but they’re thriving: the concept of “polyamory” is going through a kind of modern-day Renaissance. There are podcasts educating people about ethical non-monogamy. There are in-depth guidebooks like More Than Two and Opening Up that offer frameworks for dealing with jealousy, sexual boundaries, and long-distance arrangements.

Here in Portland alone, there are dozens of events and Meetup groups for the polyamorous community: discussion groups for 20- and 30-somethings, or for queer poly folk; sex-positive lectures and workshops; cuddle parties, swingers clubs, kinky salons, and more.

Recently, I attended a discussion group at which several members shared their experience of living together as a “quad”. Initially, they had been dating as two separate couples — both in an open relationship — before transitioning into a polyamorous arrangement.

In their case, the individual connections are all heteronormative — the men in the quad don’t date each other, nor do the women — but the openness and level of communication between the four of them rivals any traditional marriage I’ve seen.

It takes a certain kind of trust to be able to share your partner with another lover — a willingness to confront stereotypes and expectations around gender, about what men can and cannot talk about with each other. It takes work to build connections that don’t unravel with jealously or competition — but that complement, and contribute to, relationships with other partners.

Hearing their story, and the stories of other polyamorous people, leaves me hopeful for my own future — hopeful that I can build up a relationship style of my own choosing, that honors and respects each person’s sexual preferences, but isn’t defined by them.

I may never arrive at all of the stops on the relationship escalator with any one partner, and that’s OK. There are plenty of other possibilities.

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