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April 13, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage | [ssba]

It don’t mean a thing unless it’s got that swing

In this two-part series, Philip McSweeney explores polyamory. He wanted to find out whether it was as swinging as it sounds.

Part I: It don’t mean a thing unless it’s got that swing
“Last night, my boyfriend fucked another girl,” Isobel1  told me over a beer. I’ve known Isobel since we were but squirts2, so the revelation came as a shock; more surprising was the lackadaisical, even mischievous, tone of voice in which she told me. “I’m in an open relationship,” she clarified. For how long? What how why? For six months, as it turned out. About a year-and-a-half into her relationship, the honeymoon-stage magic was wearing thin, and both were feeling sexually adventurous. After a long discussion, they came to a mutual, consensual accord that both could see other sexual partners should they so desire, while both still remained sexually and romantically involved with one another. So far it’s worked a treat. But don’t you get, like, jealous? Isobel looked bemused: “Why would I get jealous? I think she’s hot too.”

Polyamory is a vast sorta thing, the situation as outlined above one permutation among countless. In the course of my research, I talked to lots of different people, all of whose experiences with polyamory were unique. Breaking ‘polyamory’ down semantically results in a combination of ‘multiple’ and ‘love’, although perhaps a better etymology would combine ‘multiple’ and ‘intimacy’ – some branches of polyamory, such as swinging and open relationships, consider sexual acts committed outside a ‘primary’ relationship relatively meaningless, an anthropomorphised sex-aid that does not detract from the love of a primary relationship. For others, polyamory describes a lifestyle that allows them to engage in multiple, but equally fulfilling, relationships and courtships at once. The project is built around consent and honesty – sorry philanderers, but cheating is not polyamory. Guts.

Curious? Let’s open up open relationships, dip into swing(ing culture), look at polygamy without bigotry.

As already mentioned, ‘swinging’ and ‘open relationships’ fall within the parameters of polyamory. In these situations, having sexual relations with more than one partner is seen as a recreational choice where emotional feelings are ideally left at the door. As one person in the swinging scene analogised, it helps to think of non-primary sexual partners as “sex toys” – to be used to achieve a mutual satisfaction and left at the scene afterwards. This, I imagine, is easier said than done, and it is nigh-on impossible to dismiss the fact that the acts you undertake are done with a fellow human. It is most difficult for rookies to the scene, although I’m assured that the knack is acquired with time. So, why swing, or enter into a non-monogamous relationship? The answers I received were varied: the mere act itself provides a sexual thrill; it can help reinvigorate relationships gone stagnant; it’s an opportunity to explore, and hopefully satisfy, your sexual fantasies and urges in a safe environment. Additionally: “it’s just a lot of fun”.

In New Zealand, it is difficult to enter into a community based around this particular type of polyamory. Overseas, one simply has to type ‘orgy’, ‘swingers’, or ‘casual’ into craigslist to generate a cornucopia of results. Here, many participants in the community have got there via word of mouth. There is only one Swingers club in South Te Ika-a-Māui, and as far as I can ascertain, they are only open monthly and are allegedly comprised mostly of the middle-aged and older. There is also a slightly younger group in their 30s who meet and mingle once a month, but for curious 20-somethings, the only available recourse is knowing the right people. Dating sites such as OkCupid and subreddits have helped to foster a sort of burgeoning community among a younger populace, but nothing quite as secure as the tight-knit older subsets.

As for where these polyamorous swingers’ parties occur; usually a particular house is chosen and decorated for the purpose – there are ‘glory-hole’ rooms, porn rooms, spanking rooms, and showers are made available for hot standin’-up coitus and watersports. Some of these events operate under an ‘open-door’ policy, which means that people can peep in should their sex organs desire, while others have a designated system to ensure a couple’s (or trio’s, or more) privacy for the act – either a shut-door or the classic ‘tie-around-the-doorknob’ symbol. Once the sexual acts are performed and appetites satiated, the participants happily return to their everyday lives – at least in theory.

This is only one facet of polyamory. Another type of polyamorous person prefers to have multiple, equally intimate relationships at once, eschewing the rubric of a ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ partner(s). I turned to Ashley for insight. She has been practicing polyamory for three years. What sparked her interest? “I was at the end of a monogamous relationship and my close friend said: ‘I don’t want to intrude, but I think you’d be happier as a couple if you were polyamorous [like me].’” That was all it took to sow the seed of the idea. Following the conclusion of her relationship, Ashley delved into the polyamorous lifestyle, seeing multiple partners both sexually and emotionally and valuing each and every one. It is now an inexorable aspect of her personal life. I wondered if the logistics were hard – at one stage, she had seven lovers, five of whom (three males and two females) she had “serious” feelings for – “feelings that could turn into love”.

Part II
“This is probably going to sound like a callow question but what if you’re at a party, and two of your lovers are there and you’re, err, in the mood for y’know, what happens then?” She smiled and gently chided me: “You don’t get it. It just happens organically… they’ll have other partners too.” But is that always the case? “I can’t speak for everyone, because everyone’s different, but at the least, so long as every one of your partners know about each other it’s fine.”

The number of combinations possible in a polygamous relationship are head-spinningly endless. You can exist in a trio where each sleeps with the other with one prong being primary partners; you can enter into a tri-relationship; you can have a relationship where one person sleeps with others and one doesn’t; you can be in a relationship where you will only see another person if you do it together in a ménage à trois; and so it goes on. Facile jokes about barely being able to accommodate one sexual partner in my life aside, it sounded overwhelming emotionally.

This is where polyamory becomes difficult – while I imagine many of us laud the decision to become polyamorous in principle, engaging in it would be a different kettle o’ fish entirely. The main reason is not the one-eyed but the green-eyed monster, jealousy. Both Isobel and Ashley have noted that it is the males in polyamorous relationship that are more likely to get jealous; “I don’t know why, but I have better defence mechanisms… I’ll sit down, and say, ‘Ashley, why do you feel like this?’, and usually it’s because someone hasn’t been honest with me, so it isn’t really jealousy at all.” And if it is? “I can get over it in a couple of days… time is a great remedy.” Ashley observes that for many males, the jealousy only rears its ugly head in straight male-folk when their partner sleeps with other men. Their partner sleeping with other women arouses only feelings of, well, arousal. This jealousy has the power to wreck relationships. On the day I spoke to her, Ashley had just received an ultimatum from one of her lovers: “either go monogamous or I leave.” Regardless of her other paramours, losing this one would still ache because of the kind of person Ashley is; and yet, as Ashley concedes, her partner’s misgivings are human and understandable. It’s fucking tough.

This brings us tidily to how polyamory is seen in society. Full disclosure: before penning this screed I knew little about the nuances of the subject, and while part of that is certainly attributable to my general ignorance, part of it too is what Ashley perceives as societal control. “I definitely think that monogamy, the ideal nuclear family with 2.4 children or whatever, is a form of control… I think a lot of what we’re told by powers is a form of control.” Polyamory is considered a rare anomaly; in every love movie, in day-to-day interaction, in government legislation, a fulfilling monogamous relationship is painted as the ideal we should ascribe to, yearn for. It’s tied inviolably to notions of actualisation, fulfilment, contentment. When new relationships blossom, monogamy is rarely discussed but instead tacitly agreed upon in the wooing stage. Yet, for Ashley, it’s polygamy that’s afforded her happiness and actualisation (“I know myself so much better now”), as well as sexual confidence. “When I first started I wasn’t looking to explore sexually, exactly, but now I’ll only be partners with people who are sexually confident and, ha, broad-minded. My sexual confidence has increased so much!”

So insidious are society’s ideals that Ashley sometimes even thinks that monogamy is a fabricated impossible ideal. “For a while,” she says laughing, “I thought that everyone was polyamorous and in denial… sometimes I still think that.” This is a plausible reason for the stigma attached to polyamory. Its happy proponents reveal a compromising truth about those in monogamous relationships, which is why people scorn them, why Ashley’s parents cried when she told them (“I can tease them gently about it now, but… we’re still not there”).

Ultimately, though, all my interviewees agreed that whatever works for you works for you, be it monogamy, celibacy or polyamory. In Ashley’s ideal world, polyamory wouldn’t be enforced but be an embraced and commonplace option, free of the grimy judgment minds tend to accumulate over time. “I had a mental breakdown last year, and when I went to see my doctor, she said: ‘It’s the polyamory.’ At counselling afterwards? ‘Why are you polyamorous? I think you need lots of love because you didn’t know your biological parents.’ Bullshit. Bull. Shit. I can see myself, in five years, being in a monogamous relationship maybe because people change, but I will never regret being the way I am now.”

So how would you describe the effect polyamory has had on your life?

“Emancipatory,” she said with a smile. “Emancipatory and euphoric.”

1. All names have, for obvious reasons, been changed. I have decided to change the names to characters of a book I’m currently reading; I will shout the first person to deduce which novel it is a coffee xx.

2. Glorious times – we used to see each other mostly on Friday nights, which back then was as good as it got – any semblance of responsibility was acceded, the chance of getting takeaways and getting out a movie was high, perhaps a relative would visit and we’d get to travel to the airport.



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