Laurie Penny on Polyamory

Via the comments at David Thompson’s excellent blog I came across this article by Laurie Penny on the subject of polyamory – or “open” relationships, as they are sometimes called – of which she herself is a practitioner.

The reason why I found this interesting is that earlier this year I made the acquaintance of a woman in her early 30s here in Paris who, like Penny, had practiced polyamorous relationships since her early 20s and I strongly suspect still did (regular readers can probably guess who I’m on about).  My acquaintance mounted an impassioned defence of polyamory and her participation in open relationships, and during one of several rather lively discussions we had on the subject I asked her what the advantages were of sleeping with several people over having one loving partner other than the obvious – sex.  She admitted that it was all rather idealistic, but the answer she gave me was as follows:

“Supposing” she said “you are dating a guy and you really like each other and you get on really well, but he’s not into rock music and you are.  Well, if you’re in an open relationship you can also have a partner who is into rock and you can go to a concert with him, and your boyfriend won’t mind.”

“Yes,” I replied “but you can go to a rock concert with a guy who’s into rock when you’re in a normal relationship; people often have hobbies and interests that their partners don’t share.”

“Yes,” she said “but after the concert you can go and have sex.”

My next remark – which made her considerably angry – was that this sounded more like an excuse to fuck around than a substitute for a meaningful relationship, and that the whole polyamory thing was merely an attempt to put a veneer of respectability on it all.  As somebody put it afterwards: “this is polyfuckery, not polyamory”.

What I find interesting is that Penny mounts pretty much the same defence in her article:

It’s the conversations. It’s the texts with your girlfriend’s boyfriend about what to get her for her birthday. It’s sharing your Google Calendars to make sure nobody feels neglected.

The Daily Mail would have you believe that polyamory is all wild orgies full of rainbow-haired hedonists rhythmically thrusting aside common decency and battering sexual continence into submission with suspicious bits of rubber. And there is some truth to that. But far more of my polyamorous life involves making tea and talking sensibly about boundaries, safe sex and whose turn it is to do the washing-up.

Conversations, texts about birthday gifts, making tea, and having sensible discussions are indeed pleasurable social activities.  But you don’t need to be having sex with multiple partners to enjoy them, do you?  So – like going to a rock concert – I’m not sure why these are cited as a benefit of polyamory.

Over the past ten years, I have been a “single poly” with no main partner; I have been in three-person relationships; I have had open relationships and have dated people in open marriages. The best parts of those experiences have overwhelmingly been clothed ones.

Well, quite.  If the best part of those experiences have been clothed ones, then why doesn’t she do what most normal people do and keep the clothes on permanently?  She’s completely undermined her own case.

Penny unintentionally includes the most succinct explanation of polyamory in her article, probably thinking hers would be the more convincing:

When I told my editor that I wanted to write about polyamory, she adjusted her monocle, puffed on her pipe and said, “In my day, young lady, we just called it shagging around.”

Heh.

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16 thoughts on “Laurie Penny on Polyamory

  1. @ dearieme,

    They tend to assure everybody that they only practice safe sex. At least one woman I told this to thought you would have to be rather stupid to believe them.

  2. Pingback: Well, yes | Tim Worstall

  3. For a women to continuously have sex with various partners and without any connection to creating new life is another modern phenomenon which has something to do with birth control.

  4. “talking sensibly about boundaries, safe sex and whose turn it is to do the washing-up.”

    I can’t imagine a worse defence of ‘polyamory’. Although I suppose she is describing normal life for a Guardian reader.

  5. It’s taken me ages to see the joke. You’re discussing poly bags again, aren’t you?

  6. “What’ll she do when the clap becomes entirely immune to antibiotics?”

    She’ll probably blame it on capitalism.

    But at the risk of sounding cynical, the ostentatious practicing of polyamory – and particularly, the practice of calling it that – does seem rather like an affectation. It seems like an identity that some people adopt because they want to be seen as more daring and sophisticated than everyone else. It does also seem like an excuse to avoid commitment and the compromises that it would require. I suspect that there is a strong overlap between people who boast of their polyamory and the kind of people who are into “being an artist” (as discussed previously on this blog), with similar motivations at work in each case.

  7. @AndrewZ

    Exactly- the only people I’ve met who lapels positively about things like polyamory weren’t innovative souls, trying to plot a path through the only life they’ll ever have which took advantage in the myriad opportunities it offered, they were dilettantes, endlessly looking for something to make themselves more interesting.

  8. I suspect that there is a strong overlap between people who boast of their polyamory and the kind of people who are into “being an artist” (as discussed previously on this blog), with similar motivations at work in each case.

    In my admittedly very limited experience of this world, there appears to be an overlap, yes, and for the reasons you cite.

  9. they were dilettantes, endlessly looking for something to make themselves more interesting.

    Indeed. Thinking back, my acquaintance mentioned an aspect of this life a month or so before she told me about the polyamory stuff. I couldn’t for the life of me fathom why she told me about it in the context of the time, place, and discussion and I assumed she was doing what a lot of women in their 30s tend to do: reveal aspects of their sexual history in order to make them appear younger, more daring, and – crucially – more interesting.

    So I asked her if this was the case, and she grew quite defensive (surprise, surprise) and said words to the effect of “Why would I say something like this to make me appear interesting, there are all these other super-interesting and whacky things about me”. Which was kinda true for a raw outsider from an altogether different world, and I accepted that line (although I never actually got a proper explanation as to why she told me this stuff). But in hindsight I now realise that all those other super-interesting and whacky things about her – half of her life, in other words – were themselves affectations to make her appear more interesting. All I’d done was think it was just that one statement, not her entire persona.

    I have to say, I look back with fascination at this stuff. I wish I’d hung on in there a bit longer and seen what else would reveal itself, I’m sure I only scratched the surface.

  10. “For a women to continuously have sex with various partners and without any connection to creating new life is another modern phenomenon which has something to do with birth control.”

    Indeed, and it is one of the most splendid aspects of modernity in my not-s-modest opinion. Well, that and mail-order bacon delivered in dog-proof packaging. These two things alone prove the manifest superiority of western civilization 😉

  11. “affectations to make her appear more interesting”

    100% the only reason that dear old Laurie claims to be polyamorous. If Laurie has had sex with anybody in the last year, I’ll swear chastity. The idea that she could make even the minimal compromises necessary to get jiggy with another or accept the potential for humiliation that getting naked and busy involves is laughable.

    It’s all about Laurie the Brand being more daring, free, open and unprejudiced than you bigots.

  12. Indeed, and it is one of the most splendid aspects of modernity in my not-s-modest opinion.

    Agreed!

  13. If Laurie has had sex with anybody in the last year, I’ll swear chastity.

    I dunno. It’s staggeringly easy for a woman under 30 to get laid, provided she has no standards and isn’t looking for much from the bloke once he’s wiped his knob on the curtains and left.

    I know nothing about Penny, but in my admittedly very limited experience – and speaking to somebody else who has a bit more experience with polyamorous people than I do – I would hazard a guess the young women get into it because a combination of their personalities* and physical appearance means this is probably the best “relationship” they can get, coupled with low-self esteem which drives their standards very low indeed. I find it extremely hard to believe that a normal, functioning, reasonably attractive 20-year old has a dream to be passed around a bunch of middle aged men instead of being in a normal, monogamous relationship with somebody who genuinely loves them.

    *With the inability to make those minimal compromises you mention chief among them.

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