|Writing about polyamory in fandom -- a meta post that I am super nervous about posting.
||[May. 20th, 2010|03:22 pm]
So! In the past couple of weeks I've had a lot of conversations, mostly pretty friendly, about polyamory in fanfic and fandom. One thing I've heard a lot is people admitting that they're trying to do the best they can to write about poly relationships, but they don't have much real-world knowledge of polyamory -- they've never been in a poly relationship, known anyone who was (to their knowledge), etc. So I thought I'd put together a meta post to offer the perspective of a poly person in fandom. This IS NOT meant as criticism of any fic or other fanwork I've encountered; I had the idea to write it based on conversations with other fans. Also I am super nervous and am actually kind of tempted to post this flocked, but! I will be brave and post it public in case it turns out to be of any use to anyone.
DISCLAIMERS: This meta is just, like, my opinion, man. I don't speak for any group or organization. I'm approaching non-monogamy from a US-based cultural context, because that's what I'm familiar with, and I'm not really qualified to talk about other cultures this way. Also, most of the people I know in the poly community fall into the categories of straight people, bisexual people, and lesbians (both cis and trans in all categories). I don't know as many gay men who identify as polyamorous, and it seems to me that they tend to have a somewhat different cultural context, so I'm sure that mileage varies. Basically I'm talking about things from my personal experience, and will try to be as open as I can about the specific POV I'm coming from, so you can be aware of what my biases are.
Polyamory and open relationships can be a very convenient plot device for fanfic writers. If a character is in a canon (or real-life, in the case of RPS) relationship, and you want to write them in a relationship with somebody else, the easiest, least angsty way to do that is often to say that the canon love interest has given their permission, because hey, they're in an open relationship. And if you want to write three characters in a relationship together, well, there you go. :) Or four! Why not?
Of course, polyamory is also a lifestyle practiced by a lot of people in the real world, and some of us are even right here in fandom. There's no one way of doing polyamory "right" -- like monogamous relationships, every poly relationship is different. But there are some general trends and widely recognized guidelines within the poly community, and a vague idea of what is "real" polyamory and what isn't. As one individual polyamorous fangirl, I'd like to take this post to talk about how to write about these lifestyles in fanfic in more-or-less accurate and sensitive ways, and also, maybe paradoxically, to encourage people to write poly fic more or less however they want, because a) poetic license applies, since basically we are writing about attractive fictional people having sexytimes anyway, b) I cannot say this enough, every individual relationship is different, and there is an exception to every rule, and c) honestly it just makes me happy that people know that we exist. :D I don't want to discourage anyone from writing poly stories because they don't think they can "get it right" -- regardless of whether you're poly, poly curious, strictly monogamous or, hell, totally celibate in real life.
Which reminds me, it would probably help to define some terms for the purpose of this meta. All terms are vague and controversial and will be probably argued about at length by any two poly people in a room together:
Polyamory: A system of relationships in which sex, love and romance can exist between more than two people, either in a "v" formation where each partner has separate pair bonds with more than one other person, or a "triangle" (or other shape) where more than two people are all, collectively, romantically bonded with each other -- in fandom-speak, an OT3, OT4, etc. These partners all know about and probably know each other, and are in frequent communication and contact. If my husband and my boyfriend are good friends and play tennis together, and they both know about each others' relationships with me, we're probably polyamorous (or "poly" for short).
Open relationship: Any relationship where the partners are free to have sex with other people. Love and romance may or may not still be reserved for one partner. Various partners may or may not know or know about each other. If my wife permits me to sleep with other women while I'm on business trips, I'm probably in an open relationship.
Swinging: A lifestyle in which partners are paired up as couples, but have sex with other members of the lifestyle at parties and clubs, usually in a casual fashion. I don't know anyone who calls themself a swinger, and have heard it used pejoratively a lot as a negative term for people who engage in casual or unethical non-monogamous behavior. I probably wouldn't call anyone a swinger who hadn't called themselves that first.
ETA: this just in -- At least one self-identified swinger has let me know that for her and her friends and partners, "swinging" means what I think of as an "open relationship," in which sex is shared more casually with friends and community members, but love and romance are reserved for the primary partner.
Non-monogamy -- catch-all term for, um, anything that isn't monogamy. All three of the above categories are non-monogamous lifestyles. Note that "cheating" or infidelity isn't non-monogamy: "cheating" is to monogamy as "crime" is to the law. Outside of that system, the concept doesn't make sense, and without the concept of crime, there can be no system of law. So the existence of infidelity is sort of necessary to the definition of monogamy. Of course, some non-monogamous systems also proscribe infidelity for certain partners, such as the polygamy practiced by fundamentalist Mormons.
Primary relationship -- the most long-term or important relationship in your life. So if you're married, your spouse is probably your primary partner. Not all polyamorous people believe in having one person as a primary partner; some don't believe that any relationship should be privileged over any other relationship.
Secondary relationship -- if you have a primary partner and also other partners, the ones who aren't primary are secondary. It doesn't necessarily mean that you value those relationships less, although you very well might, and that would be okay as long as everyone knows where they stand and is okay with it. For instance, if I had a friend with benefits who himself had a life partner of several years, I would be okay with being less central to that person's life.
Just to lay my own experience and biases on the table: I'm a 25-year-old bisexual woman. My husband and I have been married for three years, and have been poly for just about the same amount of time. We dated monogamously for a couple of years before that. We're actively poly, but not super active -- neither of us is the type to sleep around a whole lot, although we have plenty of friends who do and we think they're awesome. Neither of us even likes being touched by people we don't know very well. My personal preference is for long-term, close relationships, and I rarely have more than two partners at any given time -- my husband, and a girlfriend (or boyfriend, theoretically, but I have terrible luck with boys).
I believe that being poly is as much hardwired into me as being bisexual is; it's part of my personality. I naturally form close emotional bonds with lots of people, and I need all of those relationships to make me really happy and fulfilled. I also feel a lot of anxiety at the thought of trying to fulfill all of the emotional and physical needs of another person; it just seems like too much pressure to me, since my own experience is that no one person can do all of that for me. It is certainly possible to be in a poly relationship or lifestyle without feeling that way -- my husband says that he'd be okay being either monogamous or polyamorous, and a lot of other people in our community also feel that they have adapted polyamory rather than being born that way. It's a matter of personal experience and understanding. You don't have to write a character as always poly or always "mono;" most of us have felt different ways at different points in our lives.
Again, every poly relationship is different, but we do have a few general tendencies. Here are some things to think about when you're writing poly characters:
-- Most of us have poly friends and communities. This just makes sense, logistically -- think about how someone like me, who is married, would go about looking for another partner who would understand what I'm looking for. I'd want to find somebody who is also poly, who knows that I don't want to have an "affair" or hurt my spouse, and who would be okay with not being the only person I'm with. Ideally, I'd want someone who already has another partner of their own, so they don't feel lonely or deprived when I spend time with my spouse. So it makes sense to cultivate relationships with the local poly community, because otherwise every time I wanted to date someone I'd have to explain to them everything that I've just explained to you, and I've been writing for about an hour now. And most people still wouldn't get it or be interested, and a lot of people would have some very unkind words for me! Plus, when you're trying to live a poly life, it can help to have friends to talk to who know what you're going through and have been through similar things themselves. We poly folks are big believers in having a social support network, and a local poly community can be a great way to establish one.
When writing poly characters, think about what kind of poly community they might belong to, and which of their friends support and understand their particular style of relationship. At least in my experience, these groups tend to be largely white and largely middle-class-ish, so characters who don't fit into those categories might have a tougher time or a more complicated relationship with their poly community.
-- Relatedly: most of us have to negotiate a tricky combination of pride and discretion in our relationships. This part is a lot like being gay or bi, which makes sense, since a lot of us are also members of the GLBT community. We want to share our lives with friends and loved ones, but in a lot of situations, we have to be careful not to reveal our poly identities in situations where it could get us in trouble, such as at work or with certain family members. Some poly folks are "out" to their parents and other family members; my husband and I are both "out" to our siblings and certain relatives, but not our parents. Most poly people are not "out" at work, in my experience, although of course it depends on where you work. Characters who work for government agencies, large, conservative corporations, or, of course, religious institutions, are unlikely to have the freedom to talk about their poly relationships at work; someone who works in a tattoo shop, an independent bookstore, or a GLBT organization would be more likely to be "out."
Note that unlike some GLBT identities, poly identity isn't something that's likely to result in violence if revealed. I'm not sure anyone's ever been murdered or attacked for being poly, just subject to long lectures and moral judgments. However, a lot of women in particular are concerned about revealing that they have multiple partners, for obvious reasons: a wide variety of cultures practice various forms of "slut shaming" against women who are seen as promiscuous, and pretty much any real or fabricated evidence of such can be used as a justification for violence, even in the court system. Ultimately, it is the individual's choice whether to reveal or conceal any personal information, and there's nothing wrong with preferring to be "in the closet."
-- Some people are born poly, but nobody's born knowing what "polyamory" means. Think about how your character first learned about polyamory, and how they came to decide that it was right for them. Did they learn from a friend or a partner? From a book? The Ethical Slut is a pretty common vector for knowledge. Did they "convert" their current partner(s), or were they both/all already poly when they met?
-- The highest value of the poly community is honest communication. If you're lying to any of your partners about the nature of your relationship, it's not poly. Not all poly households feel the need to "clear" every new partner or activity with each other, but it's pretty common practice; most of us have pretty regular talks about how our relationships are going and whether we feel okay with them. If you feel jealous or neglected or otherwise angsty in a poly relationship, it's generally considered a good idea to talk about it with your partner right away and try to work out the situation as maturely as possible. A lot of the time just talking about feelings of jealousy can actually go a long way towards exorcising them. Drama sometimes happens, but for the most part we try to avoid it by communicating as openly as we can. A lot of us are really insulted by the use of the word "cheating" to refer to what we do, because "cheating" implies lying and trickery, and that's the opposite of what we're about.
A character who is canonically dishonest, untrustworthy, or un-trusting would have a tough time in a poly relationship. They would have to work at telling the truth even when a lie would be much easier, and at believing that others are telling them the truth as well, even more than in a monogamous relationship.
-- "Veto power" is one of the big controversies among poly people. Basically, in a relationship with "veto power," if my husband said to me "I think I want to go on a date with Jane Doe from the poly bowling team," and I said "I really don't trust that Jane Doe; I don't want you to have a relationship with her," that would be that. Some people think it's necessary for a primary couple to share in each other's decisions, while others feel that it violates individual autonomy and is against the spirit of poly. Of course, nothing is binary, and there are a lot of more moderate positions. My husband and I exercise veto power, but it's less of a unilateral veto and more of a "can we have a conversation about this so I can share my concerns, and see what you think about them?" kind of thing. Some people are concerned that the veto can lead to the breakup of a secondary relationship if the primary partner feels threatened by it, and I think that's a valid thing to be concerned about.
These are conversations that poly people have at great length, over and over, and revise their positions on throughout the years. You might want to think about how your poly characters would feel about these things, and where they would fall on the spectrum between valuing the primary relationship the most, and valuing individual freedom the most.
-- Secondary partners have rights, too. A secondary relationship can become just as intimate, emotional and powerful as a primary one can, and we poly people think a lot about how to nurture those relationships and build trust in them, when it can be kind of scary to fall in love with somebody who's already in love with somebody else. One of the big challenges is how to avoid giving your primary partner an unfair amount of power over your secondary partner's life. For instance, if I've been married to Bob for ten years, and dating Alice for two, of course I'm going to be inclined to give more weight to what Bob says, but I could easily be in love with Alice and care a lot about her, too. I don't want her to feel like our relationship is over the moment Bob gets jealous or annoyed with her. This takes a lot of maintenance, trust and reassurance, and it helps for Alice and Bob to know and like each other, too. If they don't like each other, they have to learn to be nice to each other, or it isn't going to work.
If you're writing a character in love with two different people, you might want to think about the relationship between those two people as well. If they don't like each other at all, you might need to work a little harder to show how the arrangement works.
-- Poly people tend to believe that love is a big concept that covers a lot of ground. You can be in love with two or three people in very different ways, and maybe not be able to say who you love "more" or "most." I might be gentle and cuddly with Joe, and sarcastic with Tim. It's not uncommon for kinky poly folks to be submissive with one partner and dominant with another. When writing a character in multiple relationships, you don't have to use their canon relationships as a template for any other relationships they might have.
Okay. So far, so positive. Now I'll come clean with the stuff that I find a little bit harder to swallow. These are suggestions from one person's perspective -- don't let me stop you! I'm just asking people to think about things from as many perspectives as possible.
-- I don't like when people portray poly folks as sex-obsessed or promiscuous as a rule, more than monogamous people are. I mean, obviously it's fanfic, a lot of it is porn, we're writing about people who are sexually active. But portraying someone who is, in canon, relatively modest and straight-laced as going out and buying a leather miniskirt and dancing on the bar as soon as she enters a poly relationship is basically the equivalent of writing a manly-man character becoming stereotypically effeminate as soon as he starts sleeping with another man. Some poly relationships are all about sex and kink, but I don't think that's the majority by a longshot.
-- Be wary of characters comparing their lovers too much out loud. Of course we talk about each other sometimes, and it's not realistic to have someone who's, for instance, married, never mention his wife when he's with his boyfriend -- if you're comfortable around somebody, you're probably not going to try to ignore such a big part of your life around him. But saying things like "you give better head than my husband does," or "you're the only one I can really talk about this with," is something we usually try to avoid, because it doesn't really foster trust -- it makes you wonder what they're saying about you to their other partners. It's close to the line of complaining about one partner to the other one, which is very risky territory, although we all do it every once in a while.
-- In general, it's harder to make me believe in the poly or open relationship you're depicting if you have characters who have never discussed non-monogamy before suddenly decide to open up their relationship because one of them has just met someone they're incredibly attracted to. That doesn't mean you can never do it, but it leads to a lot of issues -- in particular, it can make it seem like one person is willing to risk their long-term relationship over this new attraction, which doesn't necessarily bode well for the building of a new kind of relationship. I find this more believable in the case of a relatively equal threesome where all parties are attracted to each other -- it would require discussion, but it wouldn't seem as, I guess, potentially insensitive. In general, if you just want to get to the smutty part, I think it works best to devote a couple of sentences to establishing a history of non-monogamy between the canon couple -- maybe they agreed to be poly long ago, but recently have been too busy to act on it much, or just haven't met the right people. If you want to write about a first-time poly relationship, discussion and negotiation and awkwardness pretty much go with the territory.
All of these situations have their pitfalls, but on some level, when I'm reading I'm still going "yay polyamory and fanfiction, two of my favorite things, together!" I'm way more likely to get annoyed by criticisms and negative assumptions that people make about poly fic, so here at the end I'm going to take some time to address them.
-- It really bugs me when people say that it's out-of-character for a particular character to be poly, unless they've explicitly declared themselves to be monogamous in canon. Like, in "White Collar," my main fandom, the character Neal has a little monologue about how he's proud of being strong enough to be loyal to one person. So you could say that that's canon evidence that he's monogamous (at that point in time -- as I said, people change their minds). But absent something like that, chances are you mean that they're not stereotypically non-monogamous. It's like the anti-slash folks who complain about "writing straight characters as gay," when there's no canon evidence that the characters aren't "at least" bisexual, except that he likes cars and football and doesn't know what mauve is, so he must be straight. Not all polyamorous people are free-love hippies or sex-obsessed perverts or weirdos. Okay, most poly people I've met are on the geeky side in one way or another, but a lot of us aren't even obvious nerds (okay, I am, but not all of us are)! Poly people can be liberal or conservative, professionals or slackers, old or young, and as mentioned above, most of us don't go around shouting it from the rooftops. So you can write pretty much anyone as poly, and nobody can say with any certainty that it's "out of character" for them.
-- I don't like when people insist that there has to be a whole lot of exposition around a poly relationship. Sure, it's nice when it's mentioned, and the extensive negotiations and communication can be fun to read and write, but I don't think they're necessary every time. As a woman in a poly marriage, it annoys me a little when people say that a wife who is said in a fic to be okay with the husband's other relationship is being "explained away." I'm not going anywhere, you know! Just because I give my permission doesn't mean that I've been removed from the equation entirely. Just as not every story about a gay relationship has to include the angst of coming out, facing homophobia, worrying about HIV, etc, etc, not every story about polyamory has to include some variant of the "but what if you get jealous!" conversation.
-- And for that matter, why is it assumed that a couple is monogamous unless otherwise designated? I guess that encompasses the previous two points, as well. But it kind of bothers me when somebody doesn't mention the nature of a relationship in a fic, and just has Tony, who is married to Annie, having PWP sex with Joe, and people just assume that he's "cheating on her" and react with indignation. It reminds me of how in RL I have to be careful about who I hold hands with in front of whom, because people will assume that I'm cheating on my spouse when in fact that's our girlfriend and we just had a threesome this morning. Or something.
It's a kind of privilege, a minor kind, but it still is -- you never have to take the time to explain that somebody's monogamous, right? You're not expected to include a thousand words about how they discussed it and decided that monogamy was best for them, and that sometimes it makes one or the other of them sad because they'd really like to sleep with someone else, but it's what works for them and they're sticking with it. So it annoys me that I'm expected to go through the whole "this is a difficult and complicated thing!" speech every time.
My point of view is that all relationships are difficult, and all relationships are complicated. I don't know anyone in a long-term relationship who doesn't sometimes make compromises or have difficult conversations or rely on a very personal set of rules and understandings. In a long, serious relationship fic, whether it's about poly or monogamous people, it's great to talk about that stuff. In a PWP or a fluff fic, I don't think anyone ought to feel obliged to.
Um. Got a little ranty there. I meant for this to be a positive meta, and on the whole, I hope that it still is. I am really happy to be quite a few fandoms where poly fic and OT3s are popular and celebrated, and honestly one of the reasons I love fandom is because polyamory is so much more widely accepted here than it is in the mainstream media. I mean, what do I have on TV, "Big Love"? Yeah, no. So generally, please, keep doing what you're doing. Share the love, as it were.
Comments -- bring 'em on! :) I have been sitting on and editing this post for a few days now while I waited to have enough time to field comments thoughtfully, and now seems like a good time. Questions, disagreements, etc are welcome. If I've made any glaring mistakes, omissions, etc, let me know and I'll strikethrough and edit as necessary. I reserve the right to not answer questions that are highly personal, but I won't be offended if you ask them, via comment or PM.
Comments that are negative or skeptical about polyamory are okay with me, as long as they are from a place of wanting to understand, not judging or lecturing.