[blogathon] Against Pokemon-Style Polyamory


This is the sixth post in my SSA blogathon. Don’t forget to donate!

When I first started exploring and getting into polyamory about a year ago, one of the things that appealed to me about it was this idea of having “different partners” for “different needs.” It made a lot of sense to me and seemed like a rational, ethical justification for dating multiple people with everyone’s knowledge and consent.

You’ll see this rationale repeated and defended in various books and articles about polyamory, and it generally goes something like this: we all have various needs and desires when it comes to sexual/romantic relationships. Often, one person can’t possibly fulfill all of these needs and desires for you. Maybe you have a particular kink that the person you love just isn’t interested in. Maybe you thrive on the excitement of casual sex or brief relationships but still want to have a long-term, serious relationship. So you look for different partners to fulfill your different needs, and the fact that a given partner can’t be everything you want in a partner doesn’t have to prevent you from being seriously, passionately, and healthily involved with this person.

So yeah, that all sounds good in theory. But in practice, it has started giving me an uncomfy feeling over the past year. I couldn’t put my finger on why until I read this great post on Tumblr:

The idea that we should look to a single person to fulfill all our needs offends me, but so does this notion that we each have some exact checklist of needs, and that the path to fulfillment is assembling just the right combination of partners.

Someone reblogged it and added this: “People aren’t Pokemon where you are trying to build a team. Or trying to collect them either :B”

And suddenly, there it was. All of my discomfort perfectly articulated. What I’d encountered was Pokemon-Style Polyamory–the idea that polyamory is about assembling some ideal collection of partners to conveniently fulfill all of one’s needs and desires.

Looks like a pretty strong team!

Looks like a pretty strong team!

There are a number of problems with this idea. First of all, it might not be practically possible. While it’s often said that polyamory requires a lot of self-awareness–which is true–being able to literally make a list of all your “needs” might not be feasible for most people. For people with very specific sexual preferences, it’s possible to be like, “I need a partner who’s willing to Dom me,” or “I need a partner with whom I can explore [X Fetish].” But sexual/romantic relationships are rarely this simple.

Further, except in the case of specific sexual preferences or relationship configurations, how exactly does one shop around for a partner who fits their specifications? Suppose I really love cooking with a partner, but my primary partner doesn’t really like doing that (this isn’t true, he totally loves doing that). Am I really going to go on OkCupid and specify that I’m looking for a partner with whom to go on dates, have sex, and cook meals? While I could certainly do that, the likelihood that anyone else out there is looking for that specific thing is pretty low, and unlikely to work–because most people want more from a partner than just someone to sleep with and cook meals with.

Or to make it even more abstract: suppose my partner’s not the best at listening when I’m going through something difficult that I’d like to talk about (also false, but suppose). How do I go about finding a partner for the specific purpose of being a good listener (and also being, well, a partner)?

So there are at least a few practical challenges to such an approach. I’m not saying it wouldn’t work; just that it would be pretty hard to make it work. I’m sure it’s been done.

The more important challenge to this view, though, is an ethical one. Ultimately, what rubs me the wrong way about this approach to polyamory is that it feels objectifying. Rather than looking for partners in order to be close to people, have fun with them, build lives with them, have a single fantastic night with them, etc., you’re looking for partners to “fulfill” particular “needs.” You’re kind of treating them like objects.

That’s not to say that the end result could never be a mutually satisfying, respectful partnership in which you see each other holistically rather than just as means to ends. But it’s an instrumental view of sex and dating. “I need this, so I will do this to get it.”

Personally, if someone wanted to date or hook up with me because of a specific trait that I have that fulfills one of their needs–say, that I’m a good listener or am willing to do X or Y in bed or like going on dates that involve concerts and museums–I would probably say no. I would feel objectified. I want to be seen as a whole person, as the sum of all of my traits, not just as a way to fulfill a particular need that someone has.

(Of course, many poly folks might say that not being limited to one person–or seeing more than one person–is a “need” that they have, so they are poly in order to fulfill that need. I think that’s a different sort of justification, though.)

Although this view had once appealed to me, when I read that Tumblr post I immediately realized that this is not why I’m poly. I’m not poly because I have different “needs” that I must assemble an optimal set of partners in order to fulfill. I’m poly because I love more than one person at a time. I dream of more than one person at a time. I want more than one person at a time. And it feels awful to limit myself to just one when the world is so full of people to love, and life is so short and so ultimately meaningless unless we create that meaning for ourselves.

I want to emphasize that if this works for you and your partners and nobody feels used or objectified (unless they want to feel that way), go for it. It’s not my place to tell anyone how to set up their relationships. I don’t think this approach is Bad or Wrong. I just think that this is an approach worthy of thinking carefully about and being cautious about, especially if this is how we explain and promote polyamory to others.

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Extra moderation note: I am not interested in debating whether or not polyamory is healthy/natural/”moral”/feasible. If you want to argue about that, you can do it elsewhere. Because if you tell me that polyamory is unhealthy or never works, you are literally denying my lived experience and that of many friends and colleagues. Not cool. For some people, polyamory is unhealthy and doesn’t work; for others, monogamy is unhealthy and doesn’t work.

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Comments

  1. says

    Hmmm, I guess that Polyamourism would just be too exhausting for me (because, well, those people have needs, too). But I think that different people in my life fullfill different emotional needs, too and that, as generally non-jealous people we are both OK with the idea that the partner gets to spend time and things with other people.
    So, I think that in a sense everybody creates their Pokemon collection, but that they do it reciprocally

  2. says

    As I said reblogging it from you, I don’t get this approach at *all*. All my relationships meet the same needs for me: interesting conversation, cuddles, emotional support, getting to spend time with people I feel ridiculously fond of. I’d be unhappy in a relationship without cuddles, even if my other relationships were full of cuddles.

    And yeah I’ve occasionally sulked about not having a primary, a female partner, or a partner who lives near me, but if I want to date someone because they live near me rather than because of their unique awesomeness as a human being, well, I don’t actually want to date them.

  3. The Mellow Monkey says

    Rather than looking for partners in order to be close to people, have fun with them, build lives with them, have a single fantastic night with them, etc., you’re looking for partners to “fulfill” particular “needs.”

    But wanting to be close to someone, have fun with someone, build a life with someone, have a fantastic night with someone, etc. are all specific needs that people want fulfilled. These can all be used to objectify someone and frequently are. I went on a few dates with monogamous people when I was younger where I could tell that I was just being plugged into the “has a vagina, must like X, Y and Z” slot. My gender identity, the ways I obviously didn’t conform to their expectations, even my orientation were all irrelevant. “Has a vagina, must like X, Y and Z.” They wanted long term relationships, they wanted fun and a life together, and they also saw me as a way to fulfill a need. I’ve seen a lot of heteronormative monogamous relationships match this pattern exactly. No, they’re not assembling a Pokemon team, but they are clearly just treating one another as objects to match some expectation.

    This attitude really has little to do with being poly and everything to do with not treating your partner(s) as fully formed, unique individuals with their own needs and desires, IMHO.

  4. blondeintokyo says

    Can I ask you, do you actually even know a poly person who approaches polyamory in the way you’ve described here? Because I don’t. I think what you’ve said here is a too-literal take on on what people actually mean when they say this, and I don’t think anyone would have a relationship with someone simply to fulfill a checklist of needs. Every poly person I know has relationships with people they love because they love them. And they fall in love with those particular people because those people fulfill a need in them. Isn’t that why anyone (gay, straight, poly, monogamous, vanilla, kinky, trans, cis, or otherwise) falls in love with anyone else? Because that person has traits they desire, traits that satisfy their needs, traits they fall in love with?

    As an example, my partner and I are poly. He is married to a woman who is not very into sex. When he and I met, I made sure he knew (as I always do in dating anyone) that I have a very high sex drive and I cannot be with a partner who is purely vanilla or who has sexual hangups. As It turns out, he’s really sexual and a bit kinky too- so without even really trying, I fulfill a need that his wife can’t. And believe you me, he’s not with me simply for the sex. :)

    Likewise, we are both bisexual, and in the future we will likely have partners of the same sex. Again, not because we are simply fulfilling a checklist of needs, but because being bisexual, we can naturally fall in love with someone of the same sex. I’m definitely not going to start dating women JUST to get my lez on. That would be dishonest and cruel.

    I do think you’re being way too literal on this, and honestly, I think it’s a misrepresentation of what polyamory is really all about. I don’t like that because it gives the monogamous haters just one more weapon to use in their arsenal against polyamory. They already say things like, “Poly people don’t *really* love each other.” With your post basically saying “Some poly people date each other simply to fulfill a checklist and not because they actually love each other” is justifying that belief.

    So yeah… I think you are wrong, and that no one outside of say, people in open relationships (which is a horse of a different color) actually does this.

    • says

      Yes, I’ve met people like this. I’ve also read writing that’s like this.

      (I don’t mean literally going around with a physical checklist of needs, by the way. “Checklist” is a figurative term here.)

      Many (perhaps even most) of my friends are poly, and the vast majority of them are not like this at all. I didn’t mean to imply that it’s a really common thing. However, I don’t think that the possibility of monogamous people using this as a “weapon” against polyamory is a good reason not to call out harmful beliefs or practices in a community when we see them.

      And of course this isn’t “what polyamory is really all about”! If it were, I’d want nothing to do with it!

      Sounds like this isn’t what you and your partners do at all, so clearly this post is not targeted at you.

  5. says

    ::shrug:: So it’s objectifying. Who cares? Part of non-primary relationships is their potential for compartmentalizion – maybe Sweetie A *is* only in your life for a particular purpose, and what’s wrong with that?

    We do it all the time in our friendships: Joe is a Bowling Friend, Jane is a Movie Friend, Bill is a Shopping Friend, Marie is a Drinking Friend, and they’re the people we call when we feel like doing that thing, and it never seems odd that we don’t feel like drinking with Jane or shopping with Joe. Maybe you need all your partners to be fully and holistically available to you, but I don’t – in fact, that sounds a little claustrophobic to me.

    There’s nothing wrong with consensual objectification. If both you and Sweetie A are OK with the fact that they enjoy flogging you and you enjoy being flogged, but you don’t have much connection beyond that, what on earth is wrong with that?

  6. says

    I appreciate this post because it does hash out what feels kind of icky about the “different partners for different needs” argument for poly. I agree that fitting people into slots doesn’t sound very fun or sexy, and that it probably shouldn’t be the primary way we “sell” poly to non-poly people.

    That said…I’m into men, women, and other-gendered people, and I’ll admit… one reason I like being poly is that I like being able to have sex with people with varying equipment and genders. And there have been times where I have been slightly biased towards seeking new partners of a specific sex because I am currently lacking partners of that variety… which is a bit like filling out my pokemon-lineup. But it isn’t a hard-and-fast rule either… I don’t think there is some magical combo of partners with various parts and gender identities that will make me optimally fulfilled, and that I’m just seeking the right pegs to stick in those holes. Rather, I know that one of my needs (or at least wants) is variety, and that factors in to my choices about who to pursue romantically/sexually, at least on some level. So basically, I can see how the fulfilling-specific-needs model can be compatible with treating people as whole people…. it’s not an either-or situation.

  7. says

    I do agree that the “gotta catch (fulfill) ‘em all” mentality is a bit … off, to say the least. I will say, though, that I’m big on identifying the uniqueness of someone’s contributions in my life, which at least sounds dangerously close to the Pokemon problem. I’m going to have to think about this.

  8. says

    I’m not sure how I feel about this, mostly because I’m not sure about what’s actually being advocated. I agree that coming up with an exclusive list of factors that defines your next partner is objectifying, and basically fitting into the worst stereotypes of unicorn hunters. But I also think that if you really like to play video games and none of your current partners play video games, there is nothing wrong with specifically looking for a person who likes Borderlands. I think that the key (and Miri/Ozy, I think you might agree?) is to not be too specific. It’s important to recognize that everyone is multifaceted, and will be bringing a lot more to the table than just the qualities that you have specifically identified. In other words, I don’t see an issue with looking for something specific. I just don’t think it should be too specific.

    • says

      But I also think that if you really like to play video games and none of your current partners play video games, there is nothing wrong with specifically looking for a person who likes Borderlands.

      Right, but is there a reason this person would need to become a partner rather than…you know, a friend you play video games with?

  9. Axxyaan says

    I am a bit puzzled here because this doesn’t seem to be a particular polyamorous problem. I have heard plenty of monogamous people talk about what they are looking for in a partner. Do you think that is just as objectifying? What if someone has experienced a great need for a partner that listens. This person may not actively search for a partner that can listen but may have found out that relationship with partners lacking in this area, don’t last long. So yet although this person mat not actively search for a partner that can listen, if asked what needs a partner has to fullfil the answer is likely to be: Being a good listener. So is this objectifying?

  10. says

    For me polyamory is just the expression of how I feel about relationships. I don’t OWN anybody and nobody OWNS me. There is nothing more fulfilling than a good relationship. So why not have more ? Monogamy is destined to bog down on the certain things that don’t go so well. Being free is the possibility of allowing each partner to be hirself (hir= him or her). Each partner then has the ability to allow me to be me and not to try to change me.

  11. says

    I don’t think it’s either/or. You might be interested in dating someone because they are a unique, awesome person you feel an attraction to AND they fulfill a need that your other partner(s) don’t. I would say that is probably almost always the case. I, for example, am super into biting; my wife is not. I do not go out looking for another partner who is into biting, but I am open about the fact that I’m into that, and when I happen to find someone else into biting, I am excited. I don’t know if that even makes me more likely to continue seeing that person, but it definitely piques my interest in a specific way. The mutual attraction comes first; noticing what other needs they may or may not fill comes second. Besides, saying you are looking for someone who is into biting doesn’t *preclude* looking for people who are into other things. It’s like a nice bonus.

    I think this “pokemon” approach is less about collecting partners to fit various needs and more about coming to different partners with your various needs. Any collection of partners is going to be full of different traits, strengths, and weaknesses – you can just get your needs met best by whichever partner is strongest in that area. Basically I think you have it backwards – the “pokemon” come first, for what you might call good reasons, and then you choose which pokemon to bring into battle based on the needs of the situation. Each pokemon contributes different moves, types, and abilities that can help you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you captured the pokemon JUST for any one specific thing, or even primarily because of that thing. Maybe I just think squirtle is cute, and it just happens to be really helpful that he’s the only pokemon in my party with the surf ability.

    I enjoy extrapolating metaphors to extremes to illustrate my point.

  12. thaao says

    Attack Forme Deoxys with Thunderbolt and Ice Beam OHKOs this entire team. Less cheaply, a Starmie could almost do the same thing. Also, why not crop out the emulator/Windows?

    Anyway, if you simply choose Pokemon based on a single trait/ability, you will completely miss the point of the team and you will fail competitively. (You can get through the single-player game with ANYTHING EVER so it’s not really relevant… I mean, poly isn’t about the single-player game anyway, is it?)

    People tend to originally choose a Pokemon because of a trait they desire — maybe they need a bulky wall to absorb electric attacks, maybe they’re playing doubles and want Rage Powder, maybe they want Drizzle or Drought abilities… Whatever, they might start with that one trait. But if they choose the first Pokemon they like that has that trait, and do that for the other members of the team, too, they’ll find their team always loses.

    So how do they make it better? They choose monsters that have synergy with the others and fulfill many needs. Monsters that work together to make things better and work for the trainer. It’s a learning experience.

    Anyway, I don’t think this is a poly issue. This is an EVERYBODY issue. Mono people do this too. A single person may choose dates/relationships based on one or two simple needs/desires, and then not form a meaningful relationship. Someone who doesn’t believe in a poly lifestyle may keep dumping their partners and choosing new ones each time they feel unfulfilled by a certain need/desire, and then repeating this over and over because none of the partners are fulfilling in every way.

    I don’t think the idea that “some poly people also do this” really makes it a poly issue. It’s like trying to say that unemployment is a poly issue because many poly people are unemployed right now. Well, that’s not because they’re poly, that’s just because everyone is facing that issue, poly and non-poly alike. It’s the same with people focusing on relationships just to satisfy a couple needs while not forming meaningful relationships — people from all backgrounds and philosophies do this.