Robby linked me this post on Facebook and asked for my opinion of it, and then I totally forgot to tell him my opinion and now I am going to write a blog post about it instead.

In this post, Robby distinguishes multiamory and polyphilia:

Multamory is the act of being in a romantic and/or sexual relationship with more than one person over the same period of time. Multamory is opposed to unamory (a relationship with only one person) and anamory (being in no romantic and/or sexual relationships). Romantic anamory is being single. Sexual anamory is not having sex. Voluntary short-term sexual anamory is sexual abstinence (or continence); voluntary long-term sexual anamory is celibacy.

Polyphilia is a preference for having multiple simultaneous mid-to-long-term romantic and/or sexual partners. Polyphilia is opposed to monophilia (a preference for one partner) and aphilia(a preference for having no partners). We can distinguish romantic polyphilia from sexual polyphilia, and do the same for monophilia.

This distinction does one thing which is very important, which is distinguishing between preference and behavior. A lot of monogamous people tend to assume that poly people are monogamous people who are making themselves miserable for no readily apparent reason. Similarly, a lot of polyamorous people tend to assume that monogamous people just need to learn how to become polyamorous and then they will be able to. Sometimes people who prefer monogamy assume this is because they just haven’t developed the relationship skills for polyamory, and then wind up making themselves and their relationship partners unhappy.

However, I have problems!

The most obvious problem is that there are a lot of people– perhaps most people– who can be happy in both monogamous and polyamorous relationships, and thus are not aphiliac, polyphiliac, or monophiliac.

This sort of category also tends to lead people to believe that change is not possible. Most heterosexuals believe they were born that way and can’t change, even though many heterosexuals who strive to become bisexual end up experiencing some success. While many heterosexuals are incapable of experiencing same-sex attraction, the idea that it is impossible for one’s sexuality to change is simply untrue. This is a particular problem for polyamory, because anecdotally polyhacking is much more common and successful than bihacking. There are many more poly-by-choice people we’d erase than queer-by-choice, and there are many more people who would like to be polyamorous and could self-modify into polyamory that we might discourage.

(The fact that sexuality can change does not imply that a moral obligation to change. Obviously.)

The third problem is that words like this always tend to lead people to stop thinking “this is a useful abstraction for discussing certain things, like that some people don’t want to be mono and you shouldn’t try to make them” and start thinking “this is a real group of people who exists and all has similar preferences.” For instance, consider heterosexuality! Most people assume that “heterosexual” refers to a single preference. However, in practice, a heterosexual woman might be attracted to people with penises, people whose systems have male-typical hormones, people who identify as men, people with typically male secondary sexual characteristics, people the woman reads as male, or any combination of the above. This is where we get nonsense like “you’re attracted to a woman with a penis? You’re GAY!”. No, you’re just attracted to people who identify as women and have typically female secondary sexual characteristics. It doesn’t matter if that makes you “really heterosexual”. “Heterosexual” is an abstraction over a lot of different configurations of sex- and gender-based attraction, and it happens to be a bad abstraction for dealing with trans and intersex people.

However, I think that a single axis from prefers polyamory to prefers monogamy ends up erasing a really important difference that comes up a lot when people are considering polyamory: the difference between the desire to have multiple partners and the desire for your partners to have multiple partners.

First: it is important to note that people can be apathetic on both of those axes. Someone who is apathetic on both axes is the most central case of someone who can easily be poly or monogamous. In addition, people may desire polyamory or monogamy for unrelated reasons: for instance, someone who only wants secondary relationships is going to have a far easier time being poly than monogamous. But those people are less common, in my experience, and I shall proceed to ignore them.

I think most people have a pretty good model of both the desire to have multiple partners and the desire to have a single partner. Someone might want only one partner because they only fall in love with one person at a time, or they’re very picky, or they’re very busy and don’t have time for multiple partners, or they have a limited amount of emotional energy and become polysaturated very very quickly, or they prefer to develop nonsexual/nonromantic relationships and find that being Officially Off-Limits helps that. Someone might want multiple partners because they fall in love with multiple people at once, or they value sexual variety, or they don’t have a clear distinction between romantic relationship and friendship, or they want to experience new relationship energy while having a strong, committed primary partnership.

Desire for multiple partners gets into The Dreaded Jealousy Issue. It seems to me like there are approximately two things that are put into the “jealousy” category, and this is very unclear and we should separate them more clearly. First is being upset that your partner is dating other people for a reason. For instance, you might feel scared that your partner is going to replace you with someone else or sad that your partner isn’t fulfilling one of your needs with you but they are with someone else. You may have internalized monogamous norms that say you’re lower-status if your partner has sex with someone else. If you have those sorts of feelings and want to be poly, I want to reassure you that they are very fixable and a good polyamory book like The Ethical Slut or More Than Two will be full of guidance about how to do so. (If you don’t want to be poly, then you don’t have to! You do you.)

The second is an emotion which I don’t understand at all and have never experienced from the inside, so please forgive me if I do a bad job of describing it. Some people feel that having their partner fall in love with or have sex with someone else lessens their relationship somehow or takes away the specialness. Even the thought of their partner going on a date can make them extremely upset to the point of hating their metamour. This is true even if all of their emotional needs are met, their partner is being honest, and their partner is not going to leave them.

I would prefer that we call the former emotions “insecurity”, “envy”, “fear of being low-status”, etc. and that we reserve “jealousy” for the latter emotion. This is clearer, because it encourages us to treat (say) romantic insecurity as a special case of regular insecurity that shouldn’t be dealt with any differently (which it is), keeps poly people from assuming that people who don’t want their partners to date other people are just like us but more insecure, and prevents poly people from assuming we have a solution to jealousy. As far as I know, successful poly people usually do not experience the jealousy emotion (although we are perfectly likely to experience insecurity, envy, etc.), and if you do it is a sign you should be monogamous.

Of course, there are reasons other than jealousy to not want your partner to have other partners: for instance, they might not have a lot of free time or spare emotional energy, and you reasonably believe that polyamory would harm your relationship.

Jealousy is probably largest inferential gap stopping people who want their partners to be poly from understanding people who want their partners to be monogamous. (I don’t fully understand it myself!) I think the largest inferential gap the other way is that people aren’t just putting up with their partners having other partners: many people actually desire it.

For instance, some people think their partners dating other people is extremely cute and it makes them happy. (This is called “compersion”. Fangirls in the audience: it’s similar to shipping. Nonfangirls: it’s… kind of like when your friend gets a good partner, except times ten.) Some people– stereotypically asexuals, but the only person I’ve dated who had that preference was actually allosexual– feel pressure to satisfy their partners sexually if their partner can’t respond to “nah, not in the mood tonight” with “okay, I’ll go sleep with my other boyfriend.” Some people are squicked by the way that monogamy seems to them to imply ownership of your partner’s sexuality. And, yes, neoreactionaries in the audience, some people get off on their partners being promiscuous.

Robby’s category of “polyphilia” is, I think, a continuum between “desires multiple partners and desires partner to have multiple partners” and “desires single partner and desires partner to have single partner.” But I think this erases two groups of people who exist: people who desire a single partner but want that partner to date other people (call them “automonophiles”), and people who desire multiple partners but want their partner to be monogamous (call them “autopolyphiles”).

Both automonophiles and autopolyphiles are likely to face problems that polyphiles and monophiles are not. Multiamorous automonophiles are often pressured– even by well-meaning partners!– to have more than one partner. (So are polyphiliac people who, at the moment, just happen to only have one partner.) Fortunately, this is a fairly easily solved problem: don’t assume that because a relationship is mono/poly it’s unequal or unfair. It might be satisfying the preferences of everyone involved.

If you believe evolutionary psychologists, autopolyphilia is the natural human sexual orientation. Unfortunately, it also presents a lot of problems. Where many people believe that automonophiles are being taken advantage of, many people believe that autopolyphiles are taking advantage of others: getting the advantage of polyamory themselves without the cost of their partners’ other partners. Automonophilia is a lot more compatible with other people’s sexual desires: a polyphile with an automonophile partner can often get their compersion needs met with other partners, and there are lots of people who are apathetic about whether their partners have other partners. Unfortunately, it looks like the best options for autopolyphiles are to find a compatible automonophile, repress their desire for multiple partners and become unamorous, repress their jealousy and become multiamorous, or work very hard on their envy and insecurity in hopes of modifying into a more popular category.