Poly Means Many: Born This Way?

Is being polyamorous a choice, or a sexual orientation, like being gay or straight?

I come down firmly on the side of choice… Mostly.

Honestly, I think everyone has the capacity (if not the inclination) to form multiple loving relationships. Setting aside sex and romantic love for a second, most people have multiple loving relationships; close friends, workspouses, family and chosen family, the ex who somehow morphed into a best friend. And as for being in love with two people, ‘having to choose’ is common enough to be the plot of endless novels and films. And yet, most people are in monogamous relationships, and happy about it; maybe because it’s just the done thing and they’ve never questioned it, maybe for the intensity of it, maybe because it’s less risky (in all sorts of ways), maybe as a sort of loving and happy mutual self-denial, maybe they only want to share the sexual/romantic side of themselves with one special person, maybe they wouldn’t want their partner to form relationships elsewhere, or maybe they just like it just because. It doesn’t really matter.

Given that I think everyone has that ability, I don’t think there’s something special or different about people who identify as polyamorous. The difference is that they’ve chosen to form their relationship/s with (at the least) the option to form additional relationships elsewhere.

In my own life, I know I could have taken a different path, and been happily monogamous. I’ve never cheated on anyone; never even been tempted (honestly); for me, an open relationship was not an avert-the-worst decision to sidestep the ‘inevitable’ infidelity, as some people say it was for them. It was an addition, a bonus, it just seemed like it might bring extra joy and happiness and would be worth exploring.

Technically, it’s still a choice I could make – just not one I’d want to, not now, not any more. It feels like alternate universe speculation, really; I can imagine a universe in which I had taken a different path and was living my sort-of-current life but happily single, for example – but I couldn’t get there from here, it wouldn’t make sense. Aside from the fact that a monogamous relationship with anyone would have to mean the heartbreaking and unthinkable end of existing relationships, I would also miss the freedom – both for myself and for whoever was my partner. I was thinking seriously about this the other day, about how it would feel to me now to be in a monogamous relationship, and I couldn’t do it – I’d really miss even the small things, being able to say ‘she’s gorgeous and checking you out – I’m going to the loo, go and talk to her!’, let alone the big things, of being able to see the sheer joy brought to someone I love by someone else who loves them, or loving and being loved by more than one amazing person. It would feel to me as if something drastic and essential in the relationship were missing.

Even if all my current relationships were to somehow collapse disastrously, I would not choose a monogamous relationship. I may be wrong, I may regret writing that in years to come, but I suspect not.

That still doesn’t make it an orientation; it just makes it a choice that I do not consider optional. Maybe it would help to take it out of the realm of sexuality: I’ve made a succession of career-related choices, for example, starting with what I chose to focus on in school, what I chose to study at university, jobs that I’ve chosen to accept or not, additional projects I’ve taken on, voluntary work, and so on. This has led me to a position in which I couldn’t, now, choose to take on just any job anywhere – I couldn’t decide tomorrow that I’m going to go and run an oil rig, because I have neither the experience nor the interest or inclination. It doesn’t mean that not working on an oil rig, or working in my current field, is something innate – it just means that this is a combination of where my choices have led me and what I want to be doing.

The temptation is often to define sexualities as nature rather than nurture, because that sidesteps the attempts from less tolerant people to claim that it’s a lifestyle choice, and therefore everyone can and should choose to be heterosexual, monogamous, marriage-and-babies-and-lawnmowers. But why should making an active (and, one hopes, considered and informed) choice be any less valid than an innate orientation? Unless you proceed from the assumption that anyone who deviates from the norm is either wicked and choosing to be so, or a poor thing who can’t help how they were made and deserves to be pitied, why should it matter how someone came to live as they do?

I roughly think of polyamory as a descriptor of your relationship structure (or relationship options) which would explain why I think of it as a choice rather than an orientation; it’s not a label of Me As A Person or of Who I Am, just of how my life is structured and what I like and what makes me happy. Not everyone would agree with me – there are people who identify as polyamorous but who are happily in monogamous relationships, for example. And actually, to really pull out whether polyamory is an orientation or a choice would require us to have a complete understanding of how we determine whether personality traits are nature or nurture, and would also require us to have an absolute understanding of the distinction between nature and nurture, neither of which we (as humans) currently have! There are so many complicated factors thought to contribute to sexuality, including genetic, hormonal, and environmental – orientation vs choice seems like a far less important issue than allowing people to live in safety and respect, whatever their relationship structure.

I think polyamory is a choice – for me it was a choice – but I also think it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter if I’m wrong.

Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month six bloggers – ALBJ, An Open Book, Delightfully Queer, More Than Nuclear, Rarely Wears Lipstick, and The Boy With The Inked Skin – will write about their views on one of them.


9 responses to “Poly Means Many: Born This Way?

  1. “The temptation is often to define sexualities as nature rather than nurture, because that sidesteps the attempts from less tolerant people to claim that it’s a lifestyle choice”

    I missed this from mine but, yes, *this*.

    Irritatingly, it seems we pretty much agree again. Must try harder… 😉

  2. Ooh, nice closing line! And I liked this bit too… “That still doesn’t make it an orientation; it just makes it a choice that I do not consider optional.”

    I’m still pondering this one. Oddly (for a bisexual) I’m not completely comfortable with ‘both’ as an answer to this, as it feels like it should be one or the other. It feels like a choice to me, but I can see why people view it as an orientation too. That option does link it rather too closely with sex in people’s brains though, which is not ideal.

    I think this one needs a pub discussion 🙂

  3. Pingback: » Orientation vs Choice Poly Means Many

  4. This is an interesting debate.
    I like the notion that whilst it might be a choice it is not one that can be unmade.

    For me, it didn’t feel like a choice. I fell in love; and when I fell in love again I knew I hadn’t fallen out of love with my wife but that the new love was also real. It took a lot of soul-searching to be absolutely sure that I was in love with both and not simply asking for convenience coupled with lust or something else but I also knew then as now that either/or would make me extremely unhappy and possibly ruin whichever relationship I chose.
    The other reason I think it doesn’t feel like a choice is that, for my wife, her sense of (romantic and sexual) relationship is so distinctly monogamous and connected that she doesn’t seem to have any sense of how she could form any relationship of a similar type. I, of course, can imagine a scenario where she finds someone else she loves but I respect the fact that she feels it would be unnatural for her.

    In the end this path feels natural to me but perhaps I could have worked harder to conform; after all no matter what you feel – how you act on that is definitely a choice.

  5. Am I right in thinking that your definition of an orientation is something that you were born with?

    • Roughly. I ought really to unpack that a bit more! I suppose in writing this I’ve defined orientation in my own mind as ‘the opposite of choice’, so not necessarily absolutely born with, but something that’s not an option and not changeable.

      That said, I really like the distinction you made between what we want and what we choose to do with those wants, which is a useful way of looking at the point I was trying to make about how everyone is capable of feeling attraction to multiple people at once, it’s just that people in non-monogamous relationships also allow for that attraction to be acted upon.

      Everyone’s posts for this have been so interesting and thought-provoking, I feel like I want to write a follow-up.

      • Ah, I think of orientation as something that can change, but *you* can’t change it. A combination of nature and nurture, really. I’m sure that some people are “born this way”, but we also know that sexual orientation can be fluid, and change over time. It’s just not a change we have conscious power over!

      • Based largely on all the excellent Poly Means Many posts, I think I’ve changed my opinion on how to define ‘orientation’ quite rapidly! Women’s sexual orientation in particular is notoriously fluid, yes, which is fascinating in itself.

    • Also: wondering whether I have the nerve to write a piece on free will vs determinism as relating to poly, once I’ve got my current work deadline out of the way!

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