Media mending the vocabulary gap: Polyamory and the Boston Globe

Last weekend, the cover of the Boston Globe Sunday magazine featured a good story about a topic I know well: polyamory. In Love’s New Frontier, Globe writer Sandra Miller did a far better job explaining this approach to relationships than most mainstream publications do. No wide-eyed, mock-shock sensationalism.

As a polyamorous person, I was rather tickled that this topic got such prominent play. I figured: Cool! There goes a chunk of the vocabulary gap!

If you haven’t heard the term, polyamory means being open to having more than one intimate relationship at a time, with the full knowledge and consent of everyone involved.

Yes, I realize any new term sounds awkward until you get used to it. So: Get used to it. Because here’s what the vocabulary gap looks like to a poly person…

WHEN WORDS FAIL

Whenever the subject of relationships comes up, if I mention something that indicates I’m not monogamous, usually I see raised eyebrows. If I clarify that I’m poly, usually I get blank stares. Most people haven’t heard that word.

…Yes, moving to the Bay Area has helped ease that social awkwardness — but it’s still surprisingly common, even here.

Usually when people first hear the word polyamory, they immediately conflate it with infidelity, patriarchal polygamy, sex-focused swinging, or dysfunction. Occasionally they may already have some grasp of some aspects of polyamory — but rarely do they possess a vocabulary for it that’s not either exclusionary (“non-monogamous”), derisive (“promiscuous,” “cheating with permission,” or “can’t really commit”), or deliberately vague (“open”).

That’s not their fault. I don’t feel personally insulted by this vocabulary gap. But it is a problem.

Imagine if our language had no word for “female.” What if our only words for someone with a vagina were (at best) “not male” — or (at worst) “bitch,” “whore,” and “second-class citizen.”

That’s kinda what many poly people deal with. Prejudicial semi-invisibility gets old fast.

So whenever polyamory gets significant mainstream media coverage (such as this July 2009 Newsweek feature), I think it’s a good thing. Even if the coverage is poorly done, or flat-out negative.

Whenever the mainstream media mention polyamory, the vocabulary gap shrinks a little. That makes it just a bit easier for poly folk to participate in conversations that monogamous folk take for granted.

THE P-WORD AND THE EVIL EYE

There’s something else I’ve noticed when polyamory gets mentioned in conversations or publications: the immediate, reflexive, superstitious “evil-eye” reaction it commonly evokes.

Here’s what I mean. Often, when the P-word gets mentioned and explained — and even when people understand that it’s a valid and not inherently unstable or inferior option — it’s typical for them to immediately distance themselves verbally from polyamory.

It’s as if the very concept of polyamory has cooties. “It’s not something I would ever do!” and “Well, I guess that might work for some people, but not me!” are the most common evil-eye lines I hear.

And in writing, the P-word typically gets packaged in quotation marks, as if to insulate acceptable language from its contagion.

Then there are more blatant mock-shock evil eye reactions that blend panic and prurience, like this from today’s Toledo Blade’s Thin Slices blog:

“This week from the Boston Globe, a look at something called polyamory, which we find incredibly confusing and scary in the category of ‘That might be OK for other people, but not us.’ Interesting, though.”

This puzzles me. When you meet or hear about someone who’s gay, do you feel any pressing need to distance yourself from the concept? Must you reflexively blurt, “Well I’d certainly never be attracted to someone of the same sex, but…”

Or when Jews meet (or discuss) Christians, must they promptly declare, “Well, worshiping Jesus isn’t something I’d ever do, but…”

Seriously: Wouldn’t you consider that rude?

I’m just barely old enough to recall hearing some men say, “Well, having a career may be fine for some women, but my wife doesn’t need to work.” I’m also old enough to recall when such remarks became embarrassing, and stopped.

Generally I just chalk the evil eye reaction up to normal human instincts: fear of the unfamiliar, and fear of ostracism (via guilt-by-association). And I can understand that revealing and questioning any societal assumption is disorienting. You just want to get your feet back under you.

Adopting this mindset helps me to not snark back: “What, YOU can only have ONE intimate relationship at a time? Well, I guess that might work for SOME people… Sounds terribly limited and unrealistic to me, though. But to each their own, I guess…”

I hope the P-word evil eye is just a temporary linguistic quirk. Because it’s hard to talk with people who keep throwing up verbal fences.

…In the meantime, this old Jerry Seinfeld bit, “Not that there’s anything wrong with it,” helps me keep my sense of humor about the poly evil eye:

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8 thoughts on Media mending the vocabulary gap: Polyamory and the Boston Globe

  1. I admit it’s always amusing to me whenever this concept cycles around again to media interest as if it is something new. My group in high school (late ’60s) learned about polyamory because we were sci-fi geeks and read Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land”. I had been in a polyamorous marriage and 2 poly relationships for 15 years by 1987. I’ve been monogamously married since 1995.

    There are advantages and disadvantages to each state, but in my own experience it came down to two simple determinants: biological age, and level of career involvement. When I was under 30, my life was unfocused and bursting with energy. I cared about ethics, so I didn’t want to lie and swear a false contract of monogamy. Although I didn’t have multiple sex partners, I did have more than one emotionally intimate relationship at a time. In those days I just held retail sales jobs and moved almost every year. I had plenty of free time to be in love and to “go deep” with more than one person. I also had no children to raise.

    In my mid-30s I got more of an actual career going. As I got more involved with work I found that I didn’t have the time to maintain more than a single intimate relationship. Also, as men age their testosterone level plateaus. That’s why we men reach the peak period of our sexual desire by our twenties. I didn’t really feel as much interest in “sampling” a variety of women any more. I just naturally gravitated toward getting married monogamously, which I did 15 years ago.

    So, in my case, BOTH poly and mono life choices were natural.

  2. Thanks Mikey

    Speaking as a journalist, I know that when discussing anything non-mainstream, news organizations often portray it as “new” or “trendy,” in order to justify writing a “news” story about it.

    Hey, whatever. Like I said, every piece of mainstream media exposure helps close this particular vocabulary gap.

    – Amy Gahran

  3. Great post, Amy! and your post got me thinking about polyamory again in a way I hadn’t: that we don’t normally hear from people over 35 who are poly….

    Most of the poly, or “sex positive” people I’ve met over the years were young, had many issues that needed working on, and were really only testing the waters of alternative relationships. For them, it was indeed a phase. But it’s very, very different when you are a grown-up, when you know who you are, and there are no games going on between the parties. That’s the side of polyamory that never makes the papers–not just because it’s pretty rare, but because it would 1) upset so many preconceived and sacred notions of who adults *should* be and 2)would probably be revealing what’s going on for a lot of adults…that they really *don’t* want others to know…

    It’s probably possible in adulthood exactly for some of the reasons that Mikey pointed out–that men’s testosterone drops off, that they have careers–and that women become less concerned about judgments and more concerned with cultivating and preserving meaningful relationships.

    Right now, I crack up over the raised eyebrows when people find out I have 2 “boyfriends” (an odd word after a certain age) and that everybody’s o.k. with it. Just wish more peeps were as comfortable with their choices.

  4. Thanks Tish

    Interesting. My experience with getting to know the poly community was different. Among younger people I knew, the norms were monogamy and “dating around” (having only casual relationships until you picked “the one” and “settled down” into monogamy, at least for a while). Most of the poly people I met were late 30s and older.

    Guess it depends on the local culture, and who you know.

  5. Recently I read a blogger for a local newspaper (maybe Dallas) in which the author claimed that the sexual and cultural underpinnings of the AIDS epidemic in Africa could be subsumed under the word polyamory. Clearly that makes no sense to anyone who actually knows the definition of the word, and word that can even be looked-up in a modern dictionary. I think some people don’t want to understand what polyamory means and choose to use the term as a catch-all for anything THEY think is perverted or wrong.

  6. Amy–

    Great post! A comment on:

    This puzzles me. When you meet or hear about someone who’s gay, do you feel any pressing need to distance yourself from the concept? Must you reflexively blurt, “Well I’d certainly never be attracted to someone of the same sex, but…”

    Well, not these days, but 10-20 years ago, yes, that’s EXACTLY how people responded to gays outing themselves: with fear and a compelling need to distinguish their own practices from the alternative community’s.

    The poly movement is about where the gay movement was 10-20 years ago, in that sense. We are fighting the battle for educating the public about poly, just as the gay movement fought very hard to educate the public about the gay lifestyle. They pushed for tolerance and acceptance, and that is exactly the path that poly activists have before them.

    Thanks for posting. Good stuff!

  7. Hi there!

    Yes, absolutely everything you said here is completely right-on. 🙂

    But I actually have a good friend who has an open-relationship with her boyfriend, they’re moving in together, and either of them is allowed to pursue relationships outside their “coupledom”.

    But she hates the word: “polyamory”.

    I don’t know why. Maybe it’s too hippie, maybe too touchy-feely, or maybe she just doesn’t want there to be a NAME for it. The way you wouldn’t want there to be a name for people who don’t like rocky road ice cream. I don’t know.

    I like polyamory, and all of the related terms. I like “compersion”, and I like “frubbly”, and I like “NRE”. But I can kinda see why someone might be opposed to having this language applied to them.

    Is this where I say: “Well *I* would never avoid using the word “polyamory”, but if it works for you … “. ;D

  8. “Well I’d certainly never be attracted to someone of the same sex, but…”

    I have herd some say that (well never is rather long) and it might be true at the time. Being from Trinidad any understanding about polyamory is almost non-existent. Therefore all that you say about the understanding might just be true.

    “It’s not something I would ever do!” and “Well, I guess that might work for some people, but not me!” Why isn’t this a statement of truth at the time spoken.

    An extravagant comparison I’ll make. Swimming, most of us as babies can swim yet most adults cant swim. Some learn to swim, others cant be bothered with the idea of even learning to swim but will sit at the edge of the pool with their feet in the water seeming almost to wish. Others the Idea has never occurred to them because it is such a scarce commodity only enough to drink.

    Awareness always ignite changes. Hopefully all will be happy.

    “What, YOU can only have ONE intimate relationship at a time? Well, I guess that might work for SOME people… Sounds terribly limited and unrealistic to me, though. But to each their own, I guess…” True but why is ONE a limit not simply the required level for that persons fulfillment.

    ONE might be enough for me, is it a sign of being limited? I think not. Just different.

    Love all the time. Like it

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