by Janani Balasubramanian
Sometimes when I explain to folks that I’m poly, they ask if I’ve read The Ethical Slut. I tell them I’ve skimmed it. However, I’ve been thinking about writing a counterpart: something like The Hella Problematic Slut. We all fuck up dating/romance/love-wise, for sure. It’s a constant learning situation, and I hope we (QTPOC especially) can hold space to be kind to each other in the face of those fuck-ups–the ones that aren’t outright abusive fuck-ups. That’s not what this piece is about. Polyamory doesn’t get a free pass at being radical without an analysis of power in our interactions. It doesn’t stop with being open and communicative with multiple friends, partners, lovers, etc. We’ve got to situate those relationships in broader systems of domination, and recognize ways that dating and engaging people (multiple or not) can do harm within those systems. Our intimate politics are often the mostly deeply seated; it’s hard work to do. But I thought I’d get some conversation rolling by destabilizing poly as a ‘more radical than thou’ thing. To that end, here’s a list of ways to do polyamory without being awful and oppressive:
1. Don’t treat your partners like they’re less or more than one another based on super hierarchical divisions. Numbering and ranking don’t make for resistive queer relationships; openness and compassion do. Your secondary partners are not secondary people–they’re just not the folks you might devote the most time or energy to in a particular way.
2. Avoid creating situations in which your partners are competing for your affections, as if you’re a scarce capitalist commodity. This is especially true if you have some position of power over most of your partners. Like if you’re masculine-of-center and mostly date femmes. Or if you’re a White person, and all your partners are POC, in which case you should question the ways your body has all these colonial legacies of beauty privilege attached to it. Your partners aren’t ‘lucky’ because you’re dating them–this goes both ways.
3. Do not by any means claim your partners as social justice trophies. Your dates have names, so you don’t need to introduce them as [XYZ marginalized person]. You don’t get ally points this way.
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4. Remember that polyamory doesn’t make you radical all on its own, regardless of which directions your desire is oriented. We all have these preferences based on race, class, ability, gender, etc that need deep work and questioning. Dating 5 White cisgender people at once isn’t necessarily a radical act.
5. Avoid the ‘gotta catch ‘em all’ theory of dating. Being super non-consensually cruisy and privilege-denying doesn’t make for healthy communities. Nor does refusing to be in community with folks if there’s not a possibility that you could date or fuck them.
6. Don’t police other people’s monogamy or other relationship structures. You can do your thing, but everyone else has their own circumstances too, often informed by class, ability, leisure time, and racialized ideas of sluthood–all of these might limit someone’s access to non-monogamy. Not everyone wants to or can fuck/date multiple people.
7. Keep in mind that ‘poly’ is not a category of oppression in and of itself. This is not a monogamist-supremacist world. There are material privileges that support your access to the possibility of non-monogamy–ie the fact that you are able to make this choice.
8. Recognize that your non-romantic and non-sexual relationships are also real and valid! Keep your understanding of love broad and political accordingly. Other folks might not need or want as many lovers as you because they’re engaged in different varieties of relationship-building.
9. Finally, remember that polyamory is not a new or edgy concept invented in the Western world. It’s a millenia-old idea to have and value multiple relations. Let’s avoid perpetuating that cultural erasure.
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Janani Balasubramanian is a South Asian literary and performance artist. Their work deals broadly with themes of empire, desire, ancestry, microflora, apocalypse, and the Future. Janani is regular contributor at BGD and one-half of the spoken word duo DarkMatter. They’re currently working on their first science fiction novel, H. You can read more of their work at queerdarkenergy.com.
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