During the course of the pandemic, I was forced to sit with myself and examine some hard truths that I had been avoiding. Seeing the world as I knew it crumble before my eyes prompted me to question my values while simultaneously turning inward to unpack internalized oppression.
This process not only allowed me to embrace my queerness and gender expansive identity as a non-binary person, but it also allowed me to take stock of my relationships, leading me to the realization that I never really felt comfortable within the confines of monogamy. Several months later, I emerged like a phoenix from the ashes of my soul searching, ready to embrace the realm of ethical non-monogamy and explore new ways to build bonds with others.
As a newbie to the space, I had to start by doing the necessary work to understand ENM and what relationship style would work best for me.
As a newbie to the space, I had to start by doing the necessary work to understand ENM and what relationship style would work best for me. Ethical non-monogamy is cultivating relationships with multiple people through channels of clear communication and boundaries. You may also see folks using (CNM) consensual non-monogamy instead of ENM. CNM focuses on all involved partners receiving and granting informed consent. These terms are umbrella terms that encompass polyamory, a well-known practice in which folks may have multiple romantic and/or intimate connections and can exist in different forms. Although these three relationship styles are quite similar, they are not interchangeable and have unique experiences and approaches.
After finally settling in on exploring polyamory, I was initially eager to open myself up to a world of new opportunities in developing multiple connections of different forms, letting my excitement take the front seat in my decision-making. I signed back up for some dating apps including #Open, Tinder, and Feeld, establishing in my profile that I was searching for polyam connections.
I was still experiencing (and perhaps even more so) the same issues that I had prior to exploring non-monogamy.
At first, I received some attention and foot traffic on the apps that seemed promising, but little did I know that my “success” was fleeting. My experiences on #Open and Feeld yielded some results, but on Tinder, I began to notice that many of the people who were interested in me were either Unicorn Hunters that shared a joint account that was owned by the cishet male partner, femmes that were recruiting a third to salvage their relationships, or toxically monogamous folk that pretended to be poly in order to coerce me into a monogamous relationship. Although I was traversing uncharted territory, I was still experiencing (and perhaps even more so) the same issues that I had prior to exploring non-monogamy.
Suddenly, it dawned on me–was there a link between the pitfalls of monogamy and the challenges I was facing in polyamory?
After doing some research and having more inter-communal dialogue with other Black and poly folk about my experience, I realized that the situation was more layered than it initially seemed.
These problems were not only rooted in toxic monogamy but also plagued by fetishization, fatphobia, antiblackness, and other oppressions.
Brandon Jerrod, a content creator and spiritualist, tells us that these problems were not only rooted in toxic monogamy but also plagued by fetishization, fatphobia, antiblackness, and other oppressions.
“From my perspective, people often forget intersectionality when it comes to relating to one another,” they say. “In partnerships where one or more people have more privilege than their other partners, they are sometimes unable to see how they put them in proximity to harm or even induce harm themselves due to a lack of intersectional care.”
This failure to see situations and identities from multiple sides is also a breeding ground for desirability politics– or the ways in which people of privilege are prioritized over others based on how desirable they are. According to Polyamory Content Creator and Relationship Guide Evita “Lavitaloca” Sawyers.
“We’re talking about a community that is heavily focused on dating, love, sex, and romance; all things that are influenced by societal ideas of attraction, desirability, who is deemed most prime or most worthy of love. So desirability politics plays a huge role in how folks move through non-monogamy which includes everything from who gets the most partners, to who gets a pass for problematic behavior, to who gets chosen to represent our community.”
People must first unpack their internalized white supremacy–namely desirability politics–in order to build healthy connections.
Mental health therapist Alex Rich notes that polyamory can be a rewarding, enriching, and empowering experience. Still, like in any relationship, people must first unpack their internalized white supremacy–namely desirability politics–in order to build healthy connections.
“Without careful interrogation of our individual relationships to desirability politics we definitely end up replicating them. In poly spaces, you definitely see that thinner folk, lighter-skinned folk, etc. are prioritized,” she tells Spectrum Journal.
Most of the media and public portrayals of polyam folk are usually closer to whiteness, which inevitably limits depictions of Blackness in these spaces.
Unlearning problematic ideologies is one thing, but having an accurate and diverse representation of actual people and situations within poly relationships is vital to this process yet far and few in between. Desirability greatly affects how this relationship style is represented both off-screen and on, and similarly to how it manifests on an individual and interpersonal level, most of the media and public portrayals of polyam folk are usually closer to whiteness, which inevitably limits depictions of Blackness in these spaces.
Timotheus “T.J.” Gordon, Jr. researcher and creator of Black Autist blog notes that “[he] personally cannot think of examples of polyamory in Black culture and media. The only one, and the classic example, that comes to mind is the She’s Gotta Have It Netflix series,” and even with this as a possible example of Black solo polyamory, it still lacks nuance and doesn’t address the fact that the main character engaged in queerness and the relationship style in a way that is devoid of clear boundaries and healthy communication.
But these tropes are not only limited to the 2017 Spike Lee adaptation. For doctoral candidate Alexis Mayfield, a lot of these portrayals are still cishet men-centric.
“It’s so disappointing to me as a pansexual femme that most examples of Black folks in poly relationships reinscribe heteronormativity and don’t create space to challenge patriarchy in the ways I know it can. There is such focus on a cishet Black man with two girlfriends or the examples are white people and I find myself yearning to see examples that fit me. I especially wanna see Black, fat folks and Black noncishet men in relationships with Black, queer femmes be shown more often,” she says.
Approaching polyamory with a scarcity mindset... can lead folks to re-adopting toxic monogamy because of fear.
Another issue that connects polyam to compulsory monogamy is scarcity. It is a mindset that, as noted by Rich, “we are taught and encouraged to believe that romantic love specifically is a finite resource. It is something that if we are too liberal with it, it’s less valuable.” Approaching polyamory with a scarcity mindset can hinder folks from communicating and connecting with others in healthy ways and can lead folks to re-adopting toxic monogamy because of fear. Although this behavior is concerning, Sawyers reminds us that we can still hold space for and give grace to Black folks, especially those who are further marginalized, in the community because we notably have fewer options when it comes to dating and face many challenges because of antiblackness.
“In my experience, the belief that I am going to be able to find multiple people to be in relationships with, that are in alignment with what I want for my relationships, and that have the right conditions for me to enter into relationships with them, is a belief I have to constantly work to maintain, especially as a Black woman,” she says. “The zero-sum-game scarcity that comes from monogamy, plus the smaller dating pool of polyamorous folks, plus dating to my own specifications whittles down the number of eligible people to interact with– it can be hard not losing hope.”
Even though polyam relationships can have some of the same issues that are rooted in compulsory monogamy, there are still several issues that are unique to the community, which include “understanding relationship capacity, communicating being polysaturated and working through jealousy to get to compersion,” Jerrod comments.
Unpacking societal oppressions and compulsory monogamy can create opportunities for folks to dismantle societal norms...
In order to cultivate healthy polyamorous relationships, we must recognize that it is not a cure for failed monogamy nor is it an interpersonal paradise that is problem-free. The goal is to understand that unpacking societal oppressions and compulsory monogamy can create opportunities for folks to dismantle societal norms and healthily engage with one another as a whole.
“Polyamory has deepened my non-romantic relationships because I have a much better understanding of what it means to be free with my love. I find myself a lot closer to my friends and my family because I do not have to prioritize anyone,” says Rich.
Focus on the people within the relationship and to do the necessary work.
For folks, like me, who are new and new-ish to the community, there sometimes is the wish that there was a playbook or set of rules to assist us in understanding this relationship type. However, Dee Rae, a digital storyteller, content creator, and event curator encourages us to focus on the people within the relationship and to do the necessary work.
“It’s not the relationship itself that should be worked on most: it’s the people in it. Learn your boundaries, your quirks, your wants and needs, your bandwidth/capacity for giving and receiving love, your energy level and time constraints, emotional intelligence, communication style, your must haves and the things you can live without. Once you know yourself, it’s much easier to determine if someone is compatible at any given time with your personality, life, and lifestyle.”