Polyamory: our partners may be countless, but they still count

Remember Craigslist Mom from earlier this summer, who sought a ‘sugar baby’ for her son through an online ad?


I wanted at the time to write an open letter to her. So much was wrong with her advert that I ultimately struggled.

We need to lose virginity as a concept – having sex doesn’t involve losing anything, or confer, as Craigslist Mom assumes, some magical new status – and what makes her link it with nerdiness anyway? We know it’s a myth women in scant clothing are at greater risk of rape; I wouldn’t be surprised if, following investigation, there turned out to be zero correlation between frequency of sex in teens and traits deemed un-nerdy (sportiness, confidence or popularity, say). Being a nerd, after all, is in Laurie Penny’s words ‘about making things and fixing things and taking things apart to see how they work’ – sex being a case in point. It’s not by chance that all the sex workers, sex writers and sex educators I know are enormous nerds: nerds read Wikipedia articles on positions and anatomy; they learn words for identities, relationship styles and fetishes non-nerds don’t know; they meet other nerds through iPhone apps and Star Trek fan clubs, then have nerdy sex that’s fulfilling and fun.

We need to lose classism and slut-shaming. (God forbid a Harvard student and a woman paid for sex might form a connection or stay together in the long run.) We need to lose, or at least be very careful with, ‘seduction’ culture. (Plenty of people will want sex with you, whoever you are. When someone doesn’t, respect that and move on. Pestering, pressuring or coercing them till they give in isn’t romantic. It’s harassment.) We need to lose parents’ sense of ownership over their children’s bodies. (Even benevolent forms of this – ‘It’s okay with us if you like boys, son’ – can be annoying. I own my body, and need no one’s permission but my partners’. Of course it’s fucking well okay.)

But when I come back to Craigslist Mom’s advertisement, one thing bothers me above all else: how does she know her son hasn’t had sex?

She says he’s never had a girlfriend; what she means is he’s never done the teenage boyfriend-girlfriend mating dance, with steps like meeting the parentsgoing to prom and – on primetime American teen dramas – popping the question. Sex does not just happen in this context. Perhaps he’s had friends with benefits; perhaps he no-strings-attached encounters with online contacts; perhaps he’s fumbled about with girls in the back row at the cinema. (What constitutes ‘sex’ precisely, anyway?)

Perhaps he doesn’t like girls. Perhaps he likes boys, or people of other genders, or any combination of the above, and they’ve done any of that. (Gay teenage partnerships practically never follow the come-for-dinner, meet-the-parents narrative.) Perhaps he isn’t sexually or romantically interested in anyone, or almost anyone, which is entirely fine and does not need fixing. Perhaps he’s been with people before one way or another, but doesn’t want to be again; perhaps he’d like to be in future, but not right now. Perhaps his main sexual pastime is masturbation, reading erotica, writing it, cybering through Skype or online message. Perhaps he’s seeing, or has seen, a range of people non-exclusively, none of whom meet narrow ‘girlfriend’ criteria.

I know there’s a good chance that Craigslist Mom doesn’t exist – that she was an attention-seeking practical joke, designed to rile the Twitterati or, more worryingly, expose women who responded. The ideas and presumptions she represents, though, are wholly real, and should be taken seriously. I’ve seem some of them from my own (altogether very preferable) relatives.

Last year, I said to one that monogamy didn’t interest me. ‘You’re not in a long-term relationship’, they said as if to explain. The reverse was true: I wasn’t in one exclusive partnership because monogamy doesn’t appeal. When you’re poly, many long-term relationships can happen at once – you don’t stop seeing your dentist when you visit your GP – or, at the very least, a single/taken dichotomy begins to crumble. For most people, the mark of a relationship is exclusivity with one other person: having more than one partner or fewer means you’re not in an LTR, and saying when one starts or ends is very simple. Things get much blurrier, by contrast, when monogamy’s not a prerequisite.

Last week, after saying I don’t want kids or marriage, a different relative asked, ‘You don’t want any kind of relationship, then?’ I ended up telling them I’m happily single (by which I really meant ‘with no primary partner‘); what I should have said was that I’ve been in various relationships, often several at once, which never caught my family’s notice. When you’ve multiple partners none of whom fills the role of girlfriend-coming-to-dinner, as might have been the case for Craigslist Son, your relationships can often go unnoticed – but they are relationships. If you don’t know of one person I’m seeing, it could mean I’m seeing more than one, not fewer.

I’m neither gay nor straight; I don’t identify, in general, as bisexual. I live, in other words, under sexual erasure. When because I’ve no visible girlfriend or boyfriend, it’s assumed I’ve no sexual or romantic links, more gets piled on. Heteromonogamy isn’t singledom’s sole cure – nor is it necessary, as Albert Camus put it, to love rarely in order to love much. Embracing the many, for poly people, counts just as much as finding the one: our partners may be countless, but they still count.


  1. says

    Hmm. You’ve more or less described my situation: multiple sexual relationships, some long-term, some short-term, some more steady, some intermittent. And my orientation too. It hadn’t really occurred to me that I’m being erased from a lot of conversations, but it’s true. I discuss the full extent of my sexual activities with very few people, in part because so few will understand without judging.


  2. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    My immediate thought on reading that ad is … maybe he’s gay! Or just quietlymamaging his relationships with girls, focusing on sportsand college, and having a quiet good time.

    But if true, this is the ultimate in helicopter-mom activity: hovering over his sex life.

  3. Yellow Thursday says

    My thoughts on this are very similar, though I have a break or distinction (neither of those is quite the right word) between meatspace relationships and online relationships.

    In meatspace, I’m married, and I let people assume that I’m straight. I’d be willing to pursue polyamory in meatspace (and my husband and I have discussed it in depth), but I would have to keep quiet about it for the sake of my career.

    In the primary online community I inhabit (under a different pseudonym), I’m out as pansexual. I have multiple partners who know I’m not looking for an exclusive relationship. These relationships, for the most part, mean a lot to me. Some are more romantic, some are more sexual, but there’s always a connection there, even in pixels and text. None of those relationships are primary – my husband is still my primary relationship.

  4. Scr... Archivist says

    Alex, welcome to FreethoughtBlogs. I think I remember seeing you in one of those Google hangouts PZ (or someone else?) hosted several months ago, so it’s good to see you blogging here.

    Since you live in the U.K., you may have already seen a recent BBC article about polyamory. If not, here is the URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23726120 You might find it interesting.

  5. says

    Yes, saw that! Mildly grating how they felt the need to include a non-polyamorous person’s “Oh, but we’re all pre-programmed for monogamy” opinion to provide a sense of “balance”, but a good piece nonetheless. And yay for Google calendars.

  6. leftwingfox says

    You’re absolutely right on the structural issues framing the central idea, but it’s also the fact that the central idea s terrible: sex doesn’t cure shyness. It’s like looking at a rickety wooden tower built with slave labour and endangered lumber, then learning the purpose of the whole edifice is to climb to the moon so we can harvest the cheese.

    I’m shy. I’m a serious introvert and have major esteem issues, making it virtually impossible for me to meet women offline, or recognize attraction directed at me. Seriously, the last couple of times I started dating someone, all my friends admitted afterwards that they were seeing signs weeks earlier. 😛

    The kicker is, I actually had the steamy high-school relationship, where we did pretty much everything short of PIV. Sure didn’t change my esteem issues.

  7. Dave, ex-Kwisatz Haderach says

    I need to print this out and staple it to Holly’s forehead.

    My sister’s mother-in-law has recently decided to basically do the Craigslist mom thing for me (to me). Maybe she hasn’t gotten to the point of trying to bribe women to date me, but I’m sure it won’t be long. Her idea of me as this shy, introvert who just needs the right woman to come along and break me out of my shell, is a fantasy she’s concocted that bears no resemblance to the real me. I haven’t tried to explain to her that although I’m currently having great sex with several women, all of whom know each other and are aware of the relationships, I cannot share living space with another person. I need time alone and space that is just for me. She couldn’t comprehend it. The storybook one man one woman marriage she wants me to have would be just all kinds of hell.

    Aside: Welcome to FTB, Alex. Love your work so far! And yes, nerdy sex is great sex!

  8. GrayGaffer says

    In principle I agree with everything you say, but there is one nugget of reality that I can personally attest to – there _are_ physiological changes in a boy associated with losing one’s virginity.

    I was a shy nerd, went to an all male High School, then was decanted into a heavily female college that had been required to change its ways and go co-ed (1000 girls, 47 boys). I was a total virgin at the time. I also had suffered from very pussy acne (messy boils that left bloody smears when they popped. yuk!) on my back since the age of 14.

    So the night I was seduced (I of course had no idea how to do that, really still don’t but that’s another story) I would not take off my shirt. I told her why when she tugged at it, and she merely said “no matter, take it off anyway”. Three weeks later all traces of the acne had gone, never to re-appear. That was 47 years ago.

    But I would have been mortified if presented with Craigs List Mom’s arrangements. And so many many ways that could have gone so very wrong, even years later. We imprint at that age.

  9. GrayGaffer says

    No, not a quack anecdote, this is personal experience.

    They left permament scars and I can get my wife to shoot a pic of them if you want. I have no explanation why, but it hapenned, and was accompanied by a vast release of anxiety. Which may have been more significant than the sex, but no way of telling now.

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