Contra Aella on Polyamoric Lexicality
Aella wrote about polyamory a few days ago, and packaged it as a one-stop repository to address everyone’s most common questions to her particular approach. She has always demonstrated a measured and thoughtful approach on this topic. Two years ago, she was the first person I thought of inviting to The Bailey podcast to our episode about polyamory.
Polyamory’s definition gets flipped on its head:
The definition of ‘polyamorous’ that I find cleanest, for me, is not forbidding your partner from having extra-relationship intimacy. It doesn’t matter if they’re acting on it or not, it doesn’t matter if you don’t feel like banging anybody else, as long as your partner could go have sex/love someone else if they wanted, then to me, that’s polyamory.
She highlights many reasons for why this is the right approach. It makes sense to discuss polyamory as more of an orientation rather than an active practice, otherwise you will routinely encounter scenarios where the words used easily fray at the seams.
But I identify two main problems with this antipodal approach:
This is not how most people use the term
The definition is both self-serving and vacuous
The pitfalls of the first problem appear obvious. In all my discussions with poly people, Aella’s definitional approach is unique. Words ideally serve as the linguistic Schelling points to facilitate congregation around shared meaning. If you utter the word ‘polyamory’ to someone, there’s a good chance you’ll conjure up in their mind something along the lines of “the practice or desire for multiple intimate relationships outside your own”, which isn’t all that different from Aella’s third example:
“Engaging in relationships outside your own” also feels like a weird definition. What if my partner and I are both dating multiple people, but then we break up with them cause we’re moving to a small town with nobody we find attractive? Are we suddenly monogamous now?
The only tweak you need here is adding “engaging or wanting to engage” to eliminate the purported incoherency in the scenario above. The couple’s poly badge won’t get confiscated just because they moved to a small town full of unattractive people, because their relational outlook remains just as polyamorous as before. This is also perfectly consistent with how we already colloquially discuss monogamy—someone does not suddenly bit flip into “asexuality” just because their monogamous relationship ended and they’re single again.
As a brief aside, I’m a straight guy who generally ends up in monogamous relationships, but I also wouldn’t mind if I was either allowed or encouraged to sleep with other women by my partner.1 According to Aella’s definition, this would mean that I am monogamous but paradoxically would want to date polyamorous women. That seems…weird, and does not at all jive with how people normally talk about this.
I’m puzzled by the need to brute force a railroad switch on a line already so well-traveled. This is very similar to what continues to transpire over the definitional wrangling of “racism”. We already have a shared understanding of the word “polyamory” which is relatively coherent and consistent.2 If the term lacks the desired precision or specificity, a vocabulary fork is the appropriate response, not a dictionary revision. If the desire is for something more linguistically ornate, feel free to steal “Antipodal Polyamory”.
The second problem with Aella’s lexical approach is how it careens over the edge into meaninglessness.
According to her definition, polyamory* [note: Aella’s definition will be designated by an asterisk hereinafter] is about what restrictions you place on your partner, regardless of whether they act or want to act on that lack of restraint. But if so, then it would tell you absolutely nothing about who/how this polyam* wants to date. A literal reading of the definition would tell you the polyam* is totally indifferent on what their partner actually does or wants on this axis. What practical operational information is imparted when someone describes themselves as polyamorous*? Put in other words, if polyamory* is the theory, what is the praxis?
This result is incongruent with how we talk about literally any other orientation. Someone previously heterosexual who suddenly wakes up homosexual would have a clear and articulable impetus to change how they would now approach their dating life. But someone monogamous* waking up suddenly polyamorous* one morning can continue living their life exactly the same way, changing nothing, and remain just as fulfilled as before. Again, according to Aella’s definition.
My intent is not to split hairs here. I also recognize that terms like these have the potential to fractal into a kaleidoscope array with distinctions so infinitesimal as to render the map useless. So I want to examine some examples from within the broad non-monogamy constellation as a way to compare and contrast how we discuss variations within this topic.
Sometimes two people in a partnership actively want to include a third into the relationship roster. This is either a “V” or a “triangle”, depending on the relative strength of the relevant bonds. Another example, if a guy actively wants to see their partner fuck/date other people, that can either be “cuckoldry” (if paired with elements of humiliation or submission) or “hot-wife” (if paired with elements of compersion or dominance). Finally, if a guy himself actively wants to fuck/date a harem of women but wants their partner(s) to remain monogamous only to him, that’s apparently simply called “straight male sexual fantasy”. Or “Arab Sultan Cosplay”.
For all these examples, the point is that the terms teach you something cognizable about the person’s dating/sexual orientation. Someone seeking a triangle relationship or telling me they’re into cuckoldry tells me a lot of information about what what they want. In contrast Aella’s definition of polyamory*, on its own, conveys virtually no meaningful information. I can tell she identifies with the label and that she is dedicated the orientation, but nothing beyond that. All I would learn from reading just her post above is what she tolerates, what she is indifferent to. I learn nothing about what she actively wants.
It’s more than just the sparseness of meaning that I take issue with. I find the stilted paradigm of this definition to be suspicious, because of how conveniently self-serving it is.
Because polyamory* is not about what you want necessarily, but about how much you get in the way of other people’s wants. Restricting other people’s autonomy therefore, ceteris paribus, is nearly a textbook definition of oppression and tyranny.
Regardless of whether or not it’s intentional, the use of loaded language will inevitably carry with it strong emotional connotations beyond just the literal meaning of the words. By framing polyamory* as the absence of restrictions on your partner’s desires and autonomy, monogamy* necessarily has to adopt the countervailing mantle. Monogamy* becomes the party of control and repression. Polyamory* is implicitly presented as inherently virtuous—as the faction of liberation.
It’s perfectly possible I’m reading too much into this—thinly slicing words is what I do for a living after all. But we already have ways to talk about polyamory without normative baggage imbued into the terminology itself. So what does this proposed paradigm add?
Aella’s specific definition both conveys less information and is needlessly loaded. Seems like the worst of both worlds.
I’ve also written about my views on cuckoldry if you’re interested in the apparent double standard.