On poly umbrellas and word magic

by Zhahai Stewart

Originally published in Loving More #23 in 2000

Periodically the subject of whether polyamory includes swinging comes up in discussions, especially online. The people who believe that poly should include swinging tend to be motivated by a spirit of inclusivity, of not wanting polyamory to become an exclusive club.

Often they are reacting to the occasional anti-swinging comment made by some poly folk. Typically, such comments reflect an attitude that polyamory is superior to swinging, or disdain swinging as just sex, which is implied to be a bad thing. This kind of attitude grates on other poly folk who came to this lifestyle as a matter of opening up more options and accepting more diversity, and are dismayed to find any of their poly colleagues disparaging another consensual alternative lifestyle choice.

It may also remind them of the social dynamic in which a disfavored group deals with their rejection by the mainstream by finding another disfavored group to disparage and distinguish themselves from -- like "poor white trash" who can at least consider themselves better than blacks (whom they may call something different).

One reaction to this very understandable discomfort is to try a bit of "word magic" and redefine polyamory to include swingers. After all, if swingers are polyamorous too, then poly folk can't put down on them without putting down on themselves, right? The good intention seems to be fostering better acceptance, by extending the name umbrella to avoid excluding anybody.

I would like to suggest that this approach is both ineffective and harmful, no matter how well intentioned. Word magic just isn't the solution, and our ability to communicate effectively gets lost in the process.

Why should the term "polyamory" exclude anybody? Should it include the monogamous and the celibate? Sex workers with multiple customers? Nominally monogamous people who have secret one night stands or ongoing affairs or who sometimes visit sex workers? Most people would say no, because polyamory stands for a concept which applies to some people, not to others. In order to mean anything useful, category words need to include some alternatives and exclude others.

This need not reflect any hierarchy or judgments about which categories are "better" - avoiding that pitfall is a separate issue from communicating clearly "to whom does this word refer?".

So what should be included in "polyamory", or "poly"? What does it "mean"?

Four guides to defining a relatively new term of this sort are published definitions, the roots of the word, the intent of the coiners of the word, and most importantly who identifies with the word.

The common thread to most published definitions is that polyamory involves openness to multiple loving erotic connections in a context of honesty among all partners. This in turn happens to match well with the roots of the word: poly = multiple, and amor = love; only the honesty part isn't in the word roots (it would make for a cumbersome word if it was).

Amor, or amour, is the sexual/romantic sort of love, not parent/child love, brotherly love, or Platonic love. It is this acceptance of multiple amor type loves which distinguishes polyamory from monogamy which may include loving family and friends.

Morning Glory and Oberon Zell/Ravenheart coined the term polyamory in the early 90's. In private correspondence with Oberon, he has confirmed that they had in mind multiple lovers, or love based erotic connections, rather than just any situation involving sex with multiple people. Words have a life of their own, and sometimes mutate away from the original intent of their creators, but in this case the reason the word "polyamory" rapidly took root across what we now call the poly subculture, was that there was a strong need for a simple term with exactly this connotation. "Swinging" already existed, but didn't fit, then or now. Polyfidelity had already been coined by the Kerista community, but referred to a limited subset of the open multiple amor options. Open marriage and open relationship likewise described only a subset of an emerging subculture which also included open and closed group marriages, etc. The proposed concept of polyamory fit the need very well, including and excluding just enough, and was quickly adopted.

That need continues today. If there were no word like polyamory, we'd need to invent one. Frankly, though, it would be hard to coin a more self-descriptive short term than that - its relatively obvious nature is another part of its appeal.

Bringing this back to that umbrella, does swinging fit this usage? Swinging is generally understood to involve creating a safe, friendly environment for limited sexual liaisons which avoid emotional entanglement and especially love. Part of the safety is typically manifested in not threatening an existing couple relationship with such emotional pulls. Put simply, amor or love is one of the pitfalls swinging is specifically designed to avoid. Swingers are in general mono-amor-ists who enjoy some forms of no-strings sexuality with friends or maybe strangers. This is in major contrast with poly-amor-ists whose major common characteristic is multiple amor type love relationships (with honesty). And in fact, this distinction was a major reason that a new term was needed, and that poly folks took up the new term, rather than considering themselves another variety of swingers (which almost none do).

(Swingers do share with polyamorists the aspect of honesty about what they are doing, they just go to the other end of the scale regarding multiple amor)

At this point it's important to avoid any assumptions that polyamory is better or worse than swinging. One residue of the mainstream culture's lingering sex-negativity is that sex and lust per se are often perceived as wrong, animal, dangerous, impure -- unless redeemed by some socially approved context. Long ago only sex within a monogamous heterosexual marriage for the purpose of procreation was really considered OK, and even then it might be more pure if you did it as a duty rather than for pleasure. The rules today are often looser, but sex is still suspect, guilty until proven innocent. Sex can be redeemed by being in a marriage, or at least a committed long-term relationship, or within monogamy, or at least with somebody you love. If a sexual encounter is labeled as "just lust", it often takes on that same shameful taint the Victorians promoted.

In this context, a few polyamorists may slide into judging swinging as less refined or evolved than poly, because it involves sex without love, that old naked dirty lust thing. I think we can all gain from challenging this assumption whenever it crops up - not just to improve our understanding and acceptance of other alternative lifestyles like swinging, but in order to confront our own internalized sex-negativity, for our own better integration. If we need to be "better than" swingers (rather than perhaps just different), then we haven't learned to fully accept ourselves, either as poly, or as sexual beings.

However, we don't have to redefine the word polyamory to include mono-amor alternatives in order to do this. We can understand and accept swinging (even participate in it in addition to poly if we wish), without having to pretend that it IS poly-amor. We can be more personally drawn to polyamory, or swinging, without putting the other down.

The fourth criteria I suggested for defining a category word like this is looking at who identifies with it.

For the most part (acknowledging a few who do both, or live in the margins between), swingers and polyamorists are pretty separate subcultures. They have their own meetings and parties, magazines, conferences, terminology, and online email lists and chat groups. The flavor and purposes of these are quite distinct, and nobody can fail to immediately notice how different they are. Even those few who are involved in both communities often see them as quite distinct, and perhaps complementary thereby. It appears that there are many more swingers than poly folk, by a substantial margin (though this may be shifting some).

In particular for our current purposes, swingers do not as a whole consider themselves polyamorous, and the large bulk of those who do consider themselves polyamorous are not swingers. So including swinging as a form of polyamory would mean that:

  • The large majority of all (new definition) polyamorists would be swingers
  • Most such "polyamorists" thus would not consider themselves polyamorists
  • The majority of those who do identify as poly are not swingers
  • The self-professed poly folk see differences between what they do and what swingers do
  • The swingers see differences between what they do and self-identified poly folk do

Suddenly, "polyamory" means "a smaller number of people who identify as polyamorous and seek multiple amor relationships plus a larger number of people who do not identify as polyamorous and who avoid multiple amor relationships".

This redefinition of poly would not foster clear communication, for anybody - swinger or poly or third party. Virtually every self-identified poly would have to become a "polyamorists but not a swinger", while the swingers would mostly continue to ignore this label applied to them from the outside. The original need for a simple word common to what are now called poly folk would again be unfilled, because the best word yet for it had been co-opted to mean something different.

Ironically, the good intentions of those advocating this redefinition of poly may unwittingly be partaking of a somewhat patronizing disrespect for the swinging subculture. This is not a matter of the swingers seeking to be under the poly umbrella - it's a matter of imposing said umbrella on them without consultation or consent. Not only is it an attempt to take the word away from those who want to use it for self identification (for poly-amor), it's an attempt to include people who aren't asking for it.

Swinging is not polyamory's poor cousin, to have its place in life improved by being included under poly's umbrella. Swinging represents yet another alternative to both conventional monogamy and to polyamory. It offers the choice of erotic exploration or fulfillment outside the socially approved container of love-based relationships. This option fits some people's needs better than polyamory does. (And a few people actively enjoy both alternatives for what each has to uniquely offer). In any listing of the alternatives, swinging needs to stand on its own as a peer option to polyamory, not as a subset under the poly heading.

How would poly folk feel if some swingers, in a spirit of inclusiveness, decided to tell the world that from now on polyamory is really just a form of swinging, that we are hereby all together under the swinging umbrella? That's essentially what the well-meaning folks who are trying to redefine polyamory are doing in reverse.

Once we look past the good intentions, the "inclusiveness" of this expanded poly umbrella is the inclusiveness of the Borg.

And it won't work. For one thing, they will never shift the common usage to consistently fit their new definition - the original and current definition is too widespread and too useful. At most they can confuse the usage, make people unsure which concept the word refers to as used by any given person. Imagine trying to redefine "apple" to mean "what used to be called an apple, or what is still called an orange".

You are never going to achieve a new consistent consensus, but you can reduce the old consistency (if the word apple were relatively new and most folks didn't yet know what it meant). This could especially mislead newbies to poly and swinging, or the media and mainstream, to no good effect.

For another problem, neither muddying the waters of communication this way, nor even achieving full acceptance of the redefinition, would really accomplish the good intentions of the advocates. Any poly disrespect for swinging has to be addressed directly, not through word magic of pretending there are no differences because there is no separate word for poly which doesn't include swingers too. The differences DO exist, and they are very significant to the people involved; the "we are all poly" emperor has no clothes.

Imagine that in order to reduce racial tensions in the US (a wonderful goal), some folks propose that from now on, "black" will mean "anybody with a belly button". Since we all now black together, nobody excluded, will this help matters? Of course, the large majority of those considered black under this new definition will still not consider themselves to be black, and most of those who do consider themselves to be (proudly) black will resent rather than appreciate this co-opting of their identity. And despite the proposed word change, no real differences will be resolved.

(As an aside, the "anybody with a belly button" definition is borrowed from the Rainbow Family's definition of who can be a Rainbow - but they created a new inclusive category word, rather than redefining a well understood one which meant something else)

I would encourage poly folks to be open to dialogues and coalitions with swingers and other alternative lifestyles when our interests coincide. I would discourage any put-down of swingers, explicit or implicit (and examination of possible sex-negative underpinnings). It's helpful to dispel some misconceptions about swinging when they come up. I support the right of those who wish to belong to both communities. I think these alternatives can respect each other, and that we are all the richer to have both options.

I do not however support the proposed (or according to some, fait accompli) redefinition of poly or polyamory to include swinging. You have probably guessed that by now.

Of course, we cannot stop individuals from deciding to personally use polyamory to mean both poly and swinging. Some have even included "cheating" on monogamous relationships as a form of polyamory, under the rationale that this represents polyamory done badly more than monogamy done badly. We can however speak up to the creators of lexicons and dictionaries, to see that they are not confused by this idiosyncratic usage. And we can let those who use the terms differently than the consensus meaning know that their usage is aberrant and confusing. Yes, they can use "polyamory" to refer to anything they want, including swinging or monogamy or even something off the wall like loving both their parents - but this will just make them less effective communicators.

Let's welcome both poly folks and swingers (and still others) under the alternative lifestyles umbrella, but not destroy a very valuable word like poly by stretching it until it pops.

© 2000 by Zhahai Stewart

Zhahai is a bi pagan who has been in his poly relationship with his partner Cascade for over 24 years and practicing polyamory for more than 30 years. Both Springs are especially interested in how we can help create the kind of world we'd like to live in. Zhahai can be contacted at zhahai(at)hisys.com)

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