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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Problem with Polynormativity

Posted by on Wed, Jan 30, 2013 at 8:15 AM

Polyamory is having its pop-culture/mainstreaming moment and sex writer, speaker, researcher and polyamory advocate Andrea Zanin, a.k.a. Sex Geek, isn't impressed:

Polyamory is resolutely presented in the media as a thing heterosexuals do, except sometimes for bisexual women who have a primary male partner and secondary female partners. It is exceedingly rare for lesbian, gay or queer poly configurations to be included in mainstream representations of polyamory, even though LGBQ circles are absolute hotbeds of polyamorous activity, and LGBQ people have a long and illustrious history of non-monogamy, recent enthusiasm about marriage notwithstanding. Go to just about any LGBQ gathering—even the most mainstream—and you can’t swing a cat without hitting at least half a dozen people who are doing some sort of non-monogamy, from regular “monogamish” bathhouse adventures to full-on poly families. It’s so common that it feels (gasp!) normal.

But if the mainstream media were to give too many column inches to LGBQ polyamory, then people might think poly is a gay thing, and that wouldn’t sell nearly as many magazines. So the typical polynormative hype article goes something like, “Meet Bob and Sue. They’re a poly couple. They’re primary partners and they date women together.” Or “they each date women on the side” or “they have sex parties in their basement” or sometimes, though more rarely, “Bob dates women and Sue dates men.” Mainstream representations rarely break the “one penis per party” rule, which is exactly as offensive as it sounds. You don’t get Bob dating Dave, or Sue dating Tim and Jim and John while Bob stays home with a movie. Because whoa! That’s just going too far. I mean, playing around with women is one thing, but if you bring a second man into the picture, don’t the two guys need to, like, duke it out? Prove who’s manlier? Because evolutionary psychology! Because nature! Because when there is a penis (and only one penis) involved it is real sex and that means a real relationship and we must have a real relationship to have a primary-secondary structure and we must have a primary-secondary structure to be a poly couple! (Hmm. So maybe this part does relate to my other three points after all.)

All of this creates a situation where polyamory is presented as a hip new trend that edgy straight folks are trying out, and boy, are they ever proud of it. Needless to say this whole framing varies from clueless about queers to downright offensive.

Andrea has lots of other insights into the way polyamorous relationships are being packaged and presented for the mainstream. Go read the whole thing.


Comments (47) RSS

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Does acceptance of female bisexuality disqualify them as queer?
Posted by Why are there cars? on January 30, 2013 at 8:32 AM · Report this
Pope Peabrain 2
Maybe we should ask straight, married porn stars. There seem to be quite a few. They and their spouse get up and go to work where they spend the day snogging in various combinations of sex.
Posted by Pope Peabrain on January 30, 2013 at 8:33 AM · Report this
Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn 3
Maybe it's time to start using the word "harem" here.
Posted by Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn on January 30, 2013 at 8:36 AM · Report this
Arsenic7 4
Besides that one Showtime series on the subject, I don't really see Polyamory presented on television or at the theater much. Occasionally you get monogamous people who test the waters but it's always pretty clear in the end that they are and should remain monogamous.
Posted by Arsenic7 on January 30, 2013 at 8:38 AM · Report this
Pick1 5
In the show "The Big C", Sean gets into a poly relationship for a couple episodes that is him with another man and one woman (he calls it a throuple).

Though, a large portion of it is him explaining that he's not, I guess it's not a great example.
Posted by Pick1 on January 30, 2013 at 8:42 AM · Report this
Oh for...

We just barely got to the point of presenting gay people as a normal thing. (Also: Asians. They just suddenly appeared on TV in the last few years. Latinos are just starting to show up in roles that don't require an accent.) And now the thing to do is hand-wringing over how the media is not doing shows that focus on the LG monogamish and swinging community? Like this is the only thing missing in primetime's fictional depiction of what America looks like?
Posted by IPJ on January 30, 2013 at 9:00 AM · Report this
Maybe so. Maybe so. But my wife are I are poly (proud to live in a state where I have to specify that I'm a man), and date another straight/poly couple. We also know three other poly couples, and all are M/F and straight(ish). All that is to say, maybe queer people pioneered poly as this article suggests (thanks queers!), but we exist too. The author seems kind of mad about that. Sorry.
Posted by ohthetrees on January 30, 2013 at 9:03 AM · Report this
Mike in MO 8
I want Sue that "dates" Tim and Jim and John (all at the same time), but I don't want to stay home. I wanna be there :P
Posted by Mike in MO on January 30, 2013 at 9:12 AM · Report this
Syphilis, meet thy makers.
Posted by You people need new hobbies on January 30, 2013 at 9:16 AM · Report this
"Andrea has lots of other insights into the way polyamorous relationships are being packaged and presented for the mainstream."

Ah yes, another trailblazing sex writer - doing what's already been done, but passing it off as new with a psychobabble name.

These "polys" are "swingers," kiddies. You can look it up. And whatever you call them, divorce attorneys love 'em.
Posted by menace2society on January 30, 2013 at 9:17 AM · Report this
passionate_jus 11
She does make some good points that I agree with. But yeah #6 is right, plus who wants to watch most of tv anyway? It's mostly crap.

Plus, the video you downloaded shows a guy in bed with a woman and another guy. Not exactly the kind of video that represents what Ms. Zanin is talking about; I was expecting the guy to be in bed with two Swedish female models. Or something.
Posted by passionate_jus on January 30, 2013 at 9:24 AM · Report this
passionate_jus 12
@10, as someone who knows quite a few people in poly relationships (including a very loving threesome who have lived together for years), you are full of shit.
Posted by passionate_jus on January 30, 2013 at 9:27 AM · Report this
Urgutha Forka 13
The mainstream media whitewashes EVERYTHING. Nothing new to see here.
Posted by Urgutha Forka on January 30, 2013 at 9:40 AM · Report this
Arsenic7 14

I can say first hand that you are wrong on all counts.
Posted by Arsenic7 on January 30, 2013 at 9:42 AM · Report this
TheMisanthrope 15
@6 has it. Andrea has it backwards. If you give too many column inches to LGBQ polyamory, people will return to the thinking that gay is a poly doorway, and that gays are ruining heterosexual monogamy by introducing polyamory into the mainstream. By keeping it mainly hetero, and with a bit of bisexual lesbianism for the men, it is hetero people threatening their own monogamy instead of gay people doing it.
Posted by TheMisanthrope on January 30, 2013 at 9:46 AM · Report this
Sargon Bighorn 16
Who pays the mortgage?
Posted by Sargon Bighorn on January 30, 2013 at 9:52 AM · Report this
Cato the Younger Younger 17
It looks pretty boring to me. I mean it's just a three/four/five way right? For us gay's that just a typical day. Call me when the media starts to focus on fisting (anal and vaginal) hard core bondage and stuff like that. Maybe public sexual humiliation?
Posted by Cato the Younger Younger on January 30, 2013 at 9:57 AM · Report this
Pope Peabrain 18
@16 lol
Posted by Pope Peabrain on January 30, 2013 at 10:23 AM · Report this
thatsnotright 19
Swinging, it's not just for old people.
Posted by thatsnotright on January 30, 2013 at 10:33 AM · Report this
Skye Blu 20
Ah-ha! An explanation at last! I wondered why it was like that when every poly I know is either penis-free of a total sausage-fest.
Posted by Skye Blu on January 30, 2013 at 10:38 AM · Report this
This reminds me of how NAWSA embraced the separate but equal spheres philosophy in their efforts to promote women's suffrage.

No no no! We don't want to vote because we're promiscuous child-neglectors who want (gasp!) reform of divorce law! We want to vote because we are virtuous defenders of the home and family and because women's influence in politics will clean up the corruption. It wasn't true but 1. at least some of them believed it to be true and 2. it worked.

So regardless of whether polyamory is a good idea or not, regardless of whether being deceitful is good or not (it isn't), it is possible that playing up polyamory's less threatening sides will lead to acceptance.
Posted by DRF on January 30, 2013 at 10:50 AM · Report this
@ 9 - You're the one who needs new hobbies, me thinks. Trolling is so passé.
Posted by Ricardo on January 30, 2013 at 10:53 AM · Report this
This over-thinking of sex is starting to be annoying. I have trouble believing that anyone who'd write that much about this could possibly be very good at it.
Posted by Jizzlobber on January 30, 2013 at 10:54 AM · Report this
Oh Gawd. I barely managed to get through this. I'm not going to go read more whining about people who insist on getting outside confirmation for private personal choices. I think its lovely if you have deep meaningful relationships with dozens of people, but really, you think you're going to get Hollywood to present that in a respectful, thoughtful manner?
Posted by Mugwumpt on January 30, 2013 at 10:56 AM · Report this
25: Yeah, I really don't get all the quasi-academic wank surrounding having sex with multiple partners. I guess it makes them feel special.
Posted by Jizzlobber on January 30, 2013 at 10:59 AM · Report this
@1: As a bi woman who has been harassed a lot on OkCupid by couples looking for threesomes despite making it clear in my profile I'm not interested, I would say no - because the mentality there is primarily that the woman's bisexuality only exists as a sexual kink, that it's not a legitimate sexual orientation on its own besides how it can please a guy's lesbian-porn fantasies.
Posted by Whoop Di Doo on January 30, 2013 at 11:04 AM · Report this
I mean, I'll admit that there are certainly some couples out there that are more respectful of boundaries, but the sheer amount of this shit that you get if you are a single bi woman on a dating site suggests it's not a fluke, but an attitude common in that community.
Posted by Whoop Di Doo on January 30, 2013 at 11:06 AM · Report this
That "community" specifically being straight couples who are interested in threesomes with women, not polyamory in general.
Posted by Whoop Di Doo on January 30, 2013 at 11:07 AM · Report this

"the uploader has not made this video available in your country"


What kind of idiotic scumbag does that?
Posted by Falcor on January 30, 2013 at 11:28 AM · Report this
@2: Uh, you do realize that they're ~acting~ on camera, right?

JFC, actors in rom-coms don't love each other either.
Posted by what a stupid analogy on January 30, 2013 at 11:32 AM · Report this
lewlew 31
Just for fun, watch the movie Guys and Balls. Silly cute and entirely watchable. Includes a triad of leather guys who live and bed together. Fun stuff.

Ahem, it's European, so that's why...
Posted by lewlew on January 30, 2013 at 11:41 AM · Report this
Most states still don't allow gays to marry, denying homosexuals the basic rights enjoyed by heterosexuals. So maybe it's not such a bad thing that polyamory, at this cultural moment, is primarily seen as a straight thing. Seeing as how so far the winning argument for same sex marriage has been that it won't open the door to a radical redefinition of marriage.

Posted by Proteus on January 30, 2013 at 11:44 AM · Report this
Sandiai 33
I wish polyandry were normative.
Posted by Sandiai on January 30, 2013 at 12:20 PM · Report this
@29: Pretty much every major American movie and TV company (Showtime in this case).
Posted by bigyaz on January 30, 2013 at 12:39 PM · Report this
I find the hand-wringing by the author about the polyamory community's (especially new and potential members) response to their aggregate depiction in the main stream media kinda cute.

Acceptance often comes from a realization that "they" are just like "us"; it would seem that within it's flawed framework, the main stream media is giving the polyamory community the best it could expect.
Posted by But... See... Michael Jordan Is... on January 30, 2013 at 1:06 PM · Report this
STS 36
They'll get to accepting other forms of poly. They just tend to nibble these things off in bits. Probably next after the MF seeking bi F will be either the couple dating couple, or my configuration of two best friends in an LTR with the same girl.
Posted by STS on January 30, 2013 at 1:24 PM · Report this
gregok 37
meanwhile mainstream british televison has a show about Thai 'Ladyboys' including full and frank discussion about sexual identity of the girls and their parners, sex acts, genital and hormonal treatments, and the inherent power imbalance between european tourists and thai hookers. US television is timid and bland by comparison.
Glad I live in Australia where we receive so much british content.
Posted by gregok on January 30, 2013 at 2:13 PM · Report this
wingedkat 38
Well, better badly represented polyamory presented as normative than no polyamory represented at all.

We're not going to see much better until the polyamorous feel comfortable coming out outside of communities like LGBTQ and BDSM.
Posted by wingedkat on January 30, 2013 at 2:15 PM · Report this
@2: Mmmaybe not. There was a "True Life" episode about a gay-for-pay porn star and his wife and their cupcake business. The husband looked like he was having the time of his life while the wife looked like (and did at the end of the episode *SPOILER!*) she was going to have a nervous meltdown at the drop of a pants. It was painfully obvious she wasn't okay with it, even though she was allowing her husband to fuck dudes.
Posted by Drew2u on January 30, 2013 at 7:30 PM · Report this
beatgrl 40
Are you sure this isn't a clip from Portlandia?
Posted by beatgrl on January 30, 2013 at 8:33 PM · Report this
SoapMacTavish 41
40 wins the thread. I thought the same.
Posted by SoapMacTavish on January 30, 2013 at 9:41 PM · Report this
I know this may sound shocking to a polyamory advocate, but she has to consider why these articles are written and read in the first place. The whole point is to find something sort of titillating to write about that will draw in readers and make them want to continue to read.

This means something slightly outside of their comfort zone while still seeming to apply to them and still within a stone's throw of their comfort zone. So in magazines oriented towards the mainstream this will mean behaviors that are pretty close to mainstream sexuality. If she wants articles about queer poly relationships those are going to appear in queer media for the same reasons mainstream poly relationships appear in mainstream media.

Seriously, as much as this issue may be her passion, this is seldom going to be an issue of hard hitting journalistic investigation and integrity. It's just a little bit of naughty human interest intended to move some magazines and provide for some clickbait.

This is true for every subculture so she really needs to get over herself. No one is going to take seriously nerd complaints about how cosplay is misrepresented in the media or hardcore knitters's complaints about how media focus on hipsters distorts coverage of what is really going on in the knitting world. Accurate articles about niche communities are for media consumed by those niche communities. For everyone else they are a momentary diversion.
Posted by Learned Hand on January 31, 2013 at 1:09 AM · Report this
Wow, there's a lot to hate in that column.
Posted by E_Mur on January 31, 2013 at 8:07 PM · Report this
@43 agreed. I think a lot of what she's describing is ethical nonmonogamy rather than polyamory. But either way, why can't we all navigate these waters in the way that works the best for us as individuals and couples? I'm not going to apologize for having a primary parter in my husband. Most of the other people I see have primary partners as well. It works for us. We're happy.
Posted by alanaeldora on February 1, 2013 at 6:11 AM · Report this
It's weird to see a blogger I've been following as a reader for a long time get discussed over one article that hits another longtime favorite blog. I guess this should make me rethink my own knee-jerk assumptions about *other* other bloggers when reading a single post of theirs that starts going wide. Hmm.
Posted by CLDG on February 1, 2013 at 9:56 AM · Report this
@33: Did you see this article on polyandry?…
Posted by BlackRose on February 1, 2013 at 2:26 PM · Report this
42 FTW.
Posted by danfan on February 2, 2013 at 12:17 AM · Report this

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