Sex & Relationships

Sexism Is a Problem in the Polyamorous Community, Too

Some polyamorous men claim they want equality, yet their rules for women say otherwise.

Photo Credit: Antonio Guillem / shutterstock

The morning after a date, Hannah* woke up with what she described as “all the feelings.” She and Greg* had met the night before for scotch and cigars. She had dressed up in an “uber-feminine” outfit, even painting her nails to match her purse. The night had been fun and sexy. But even though she was excited about how well she and Greg clicked, she was uncertain about what would happen, because Greg already had a primary partner—his wife. While Hannah had been in polyamorous relationships before, she had never dated someone with a primary partner.

A self-proclaimed "relationship anarchist,” Hannah was worried that being with someone who already had a primary partner would leave her feeling lonely or unimportant. That had been a problem in her previous relationships, even monogamous ones, and she wondered if it could be avoided when more than one person was involved. But more than a year later, Hannah and Greg are still happily together. They are constantly in contact, often by text, and are devoted to addressing any insecurities the other has. She has met and likes his wife, and the two sometimes talk independently of Greg. Both partners agree the keys to their successful relationship are communication and respect.

While Hannah and Greg’s relationship is deliberately egalitarian, some polyamorous relationships do not fit that description. Instead of being feminist, they are sexist, and even sometimes regressive and misogynist.

“The difficult thing about alternative lifestyles in general is that they tend to be easy places for shady characters to hide,” Diana* said. An advocate of what she calls “compassionate communication,” Diana has been in a polyamorous relationship for four years and has happily embraced the lifestyle. She and her partner (whom she refers to as a “nesting” partner to remove some of the implications of the word “primary”) do not have any rules or veto power in their relationships. But she has observed dynamics that, perhaps unintentionally, treat women like commodities. Some of those dynamics, she theorized, might result from heterosexual men having fewer choices in the polyamorous community than bisexual women and thus imposing rules in their relationships in order to feel control or power. They can also result from misunderstandings about what being polyamorous involves.

“Sometimes the misconception is, ‘Yeah, I totally want to be poly because I want to have sex with all the people. Sign me up,’” Diana said. “This is a situation of know thyself. You’ve got to know your boundaries, your bandwidth, how much time and energy you have, how much alone time you want. ‘Do you have a desire to live with one partner?’ There are questions to ask yourself other than, ‘Do I want to f**k a lot of people?’ Because the answer’s always going to be yes to that one. When you get into the nitty gritty, what does this stuff actually mean to you?”

The desire for multiple partners can motivate some people to enter into polyamorous relationships, but if a partner desires the same freedom, and the other doesn’t support that, problems can arise—something Diana has occasionally witnessed online as well as in her local community.

“A lot of men approach consensual non-monogamy thinking about how much fun they will have having multiple lovers,” said Elisabeth Sheff, the author of several books on polyamory. “I would encourage them to also think about their partners having other lovers. That’s a deep part of true consensual non-monogamy of that variety. [If] you’re full of glee and erections when you’re thinking about having sex with other people yourself, but the instant you think about your partner having sex with someone else you get all pissed off and jealous and freaked out and really upset—then deal with that before attempting non-monogamy. Otherwise you’re expecting your female partner to do all of this emotional labor for you to have this sexual playground.”

Tackling the One-Penis Policy

An often-seen method in which male dominance is enforced in polyamorous relationships is the "one penis policy." In a partnership typically between a heterosexual man and a bisexual woman, both are free to have other female partners, but the woman is not permitted to have relationships with other men. If enforced by one partner, rather than chosen by both, the policy is often seen as sexist, and a reflection of regressive patriarchal thinking by many—a contrast to the egalitarian goals of polyamory.

“Polyamory is a relationship style that—at least in theory—provides equality and freedom for everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or any other potentially stratifying factor,” Sheff wrote in Psychology Today. “Gender parity is key in polyamory and one of the primary distinguishing features that differentiates polyamory from more traditional or androcentric forms of consensual non-monogamy like polygyny.”

“I have definitely seen a lot of situations where people have the OPP. It makes me really angry, to be quite honest,” Hannah said. “That’s not fair. You get to have all the stuff that you want, and why shouldn’t they?”

As a blogger called the Polyamorous Misanthrope wrote, “To put it bluntly, why is it the woman’s responsibility to face culturally programmed insecurities and not the man’s?”

Western culture has a long history of viewing of a woman’s sexuality through the male lens, Sheff said in an interview with AlterNet. “Women are viewed as sexual creatures on behest of men. Everybody from Freud certainly saw women’s sexuality as derivative of men and not at all focused on the women themselves.”

Citing Lisa Diamond’s Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire, as well as The Hite ReportSheff said female sexuality has been proven to be much more fluid than male sexuality.

“You’re going to see a lot of problems and defects when you look at women’s sexuality from a male perspective. It’s going to be very problematic,” she said. “But women have not generally had their sexuality on their terms. Certainly not until they had easy access to reliable birth control, which is less than 50 years ago for most people. Some women still don’t have access to that, and given the power dynamics and economic inequality women still have, it’s not like they have ultimate access to their reproductive identity anyway.”

Diana, who has seen couples engaging in the one-penis policy in a prescriptive manner, said she often questions the motives of the men in the relationship, even if they think their intentions are loving.

“It may be coming from a very genuine place: ‘I don’t want to share your heart with anybody else,’” Diana reflected. She mentioned the one-penis policy’s evil twin: the one-vagina policy. “I would never be a part of that kind of arrangement. I try very hard not to be judgmental of people who genuinely desire that, and as far as I’m concerned, if every person who is involved in that relationship is genuinely happy with that arrangement, then great, awesome. As long as no one is being manipulated into that kind of arrangement, or coerced. To me, saying, ‘We can totally be poly and you get to date as many women as you want and so do I, but I don’t want any more men in this relationship and if you want to date another guy, you’re totally free to do that but I’ll break up with you’—to me, that’s coercive. It’s implying you’re free to go, but it’s an emotional ultimatum: Do I what I want, or I’ll leave you.”

The one-penis policy (also known as one-dick dominant) is not a method Greg agrees with, crediting it to male insecurity. He said a common scenario regarding the policy is a straight man in a relationship with a bisexual female who wants her to seek other women and have sex with both of them.

“It’s an awful situation… If you want open range on who you can see out of everyone you’re interested in, so should everyone else. I see it often, and if there’s anybody involved that I care about, I will point it out to them,” he said.

Diana said she isn’t able to understand why men who seek polyamory frequently engage in relationships with monogamous women, and finds herself wondering about their motives.

“I always say, question who you’re attracted to,” Diana said. “And if you seem really attracted to a lot of monogamous people but you want polyamory, you’ve got to ask yourself some questions. And if, at the heart of it, you want a bunch of women who are going to fight over you, who do you think you’re going to date? You’re not going to date a bunch of poly women. You’re going to bring new monogamous women into the community and watch them struggle with their own emotions.”

“I’ve definitely seen the men on the make and women’s reactions to them,” Sheff said. “I think it really depends on how they do it—how many women there are for them to choose from, how big the pool of potential partners is. Can they spread themselves around so people don’t get completely sick of them? Sometimes if they’re charismatic, they can collect themselves a little harem of women who are wowed by them and either come right out and say, ‘You’re not allowed to date other men,’ or not say that and say, ‘Oh, sure, date other people,’ but then have all these weird manipulative rules that make it so they can’t really date other men."

Confronting Abuse

A popular misconception of polyamory is that people are simply seeking multiple partners—a misunderstanding Hannah has witnessed as well.

“[From] what I’ve seen and heard from people who are not in the community, there’s this assumption that people are just waiting to sleep around and there are people who want to do that and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as that’s what they’re saying,” Hannah said. “But the poly thing is about relationships.”

“I’ve found that especially men are becoming more aware,” she continued. “I think there’s a lot of people out there with good intentions. But they have deep-seated patriarchal and misogynistic ideals that they don’t necessarily recognize they have.”

Hannah encountered those ideals herself, when dating a man who told her he would be more jealous if she dated another woman than if she dated another man. His reason, he said, was that a woman could offer sexual experiences he was unable to provide.

Manifesting in sexual relationships, this dynamic has also contributed to some abusive relationships. It can be difficult, Diana said, to determine if abuse has taken place in the polyamorous community, because of varying experiences among multiple partners. While a partner may be abusive to one person, he may not have abused others. When a person has been banned from certain parties, people often do not bring charges because the fear they won’t believed or their statement alone is not enough is a common feeling among victims.

“There’s been an ongoing discussion about, how do we keep each other safer from violations? How do we listen to victims of assault?” Diana said. “How do we make sure that you’re looking for enthusiastic consent always in everything you do? Sometimes that translates to over-asking. But good on men for at least being aware to ask than not.”

“Some women in polyamorous relationships have little to no power. And some women in monogamous relationships have very much power,” Sheff said. “But with the sexual double-standard giving men implicit permission to have multiple partners but women none, to actually have a social setting where women have explicit permission at least evens the playing field.”

Evening up the playing field, so all relationships are fulfilled, is the goal.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Carey Purcell is a New York-based writer and editor.