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: