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Molly has a problem. After months, maybe years of dating shitty men, along comes one who makes her laugh, gets her interests, and invests emotionally in her wellbeing. Molly knows this to be true because she’s known him for decades; as such, she also knows he is and has been in a committed relationship, so when this ostensibly not shitty man—Dro—makes a move on her, Molly has questions; chiefly: What the f**k? What would your girlfriend say if she could see you now?
Dro’s response: She’d probably be pretty fine with it. She’s complicit in this arrangement. We’re open.
Viewers of HBO’s Insecure will be familiar with the ensuing plotline. Dro and Molly start f*****g, and then some. They deepen a longstanding connection. Feelings are very much on the table. That makes Dro’s set up with his consenting girlfriend look a lot less like an open relationship—wherein the core couple has sex with other people but doesn’t develop emotional attachments—and a lot more like polyamory, a romantic philosophy that’s increasingly embedding itself in mainstream romantic parlance.
What is polyamory?
Recently, NPR declared polyamory to be mid-“cultural moment,” so frequently does it pop up in media narratives these days. That zeitgeisty co-opting of a legitimate relationship style may rankle those who’ve long practiced it, but for the uninitiated, it’s worth asking: What is a poly relationship?
According to MoreThanTwo.com, a site devoted to non-monogamous relationships, polyamory comes from the Greek and Latin words for “many loves,” which should tell readers a few things straight out of the gate. The first is that polyamory isn’t casual—it’s not swinging, wherein couples pursue different sex partners but not, or not purposefully, different relationships. Polyamory is the simultaneous development of multiple, loving relationships.
“The way we normally think about romantic love, we don’t imagine that it’s entirely about sex,” Carrie Jenkins, the polyamorous author of What Love Is and What It Could Be, told Science of Us in March. “For a lot of people, sex is a part of it; if we’re just having a hookup or a friend with benefits, we don’t call that romantic love. When it comes to polyamorous relationships, if you’re in love with more than one person, the same applies—to fall in love with someone is not the same as to sleep with them.”
Which is to say, polyamory separates sex and love in a way that most people are themselves capable of doing, even if popular parlance frequently conflates the two. Polyamorists believe it’s possible to love two (or more) people at once; sex is a byproduct.
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Is polyamory cheating?
Sometimes, a polyamorous person maintains a central relationship, with others developing as offshoots (in conversation with Science of Us, Jenkins described hers as a “V shape” in which she is the intersection). The existence of that “primary relationship,” as it’s often called, might prompt popular speculation that “polyamory” is just a slippery way of saying “cheating.”
But like any healthy relationship, a polyamorous one thrives on honesty, and ideally ground rules are maintained through open communication lines. Cheating is what happens anytime one person is sneaking around, deliberately keeping secret a sexual encounter they know would upset their partner. Polyamory is also called “consensual non-monogamy,” or CNM, because, well, both parties (and their other partners) have agreed to the arrangement and know what’s going on. Transparency is key.
It’s worth familiarizing oneself with the various forms a non-monogamous relationship could take, because the collective concept of what works in romance is changing. According to a 2016 analysis of data pulled from Match.com’s annual Singles in America survey, more than one in five U.S. adults have, at some point in their lives, engaged in CNM. The same year, YouGov polled 1,000 adults, and 48 percent of men and 31 percent of women classified their ideal relationships as “non-monogamous to some degree.” Not all those people are in CNM relationships and not all CNM relationships are polyamorous. But as romantic expectations shift, it’s time we familiarized ourselves with a few basic premises for doing polyamory right.
How can polyamory work?
Those with whom the concept of polyamory resonates on a native level might not need pointers in that department, but regardless of orientation or romantic preference, I’d venture that each of us has run into the kind of bullshit artist whose ears perk up at the mention of non-monogamy. They’re the kind of person who thinks that slapping a polyamorous label on their current relationship is finally going to let them sex anyone interested in sexing them back. Not necessarily so.
Esquire’s guide to being non-monogamous without being a jerk boils down to this: “Be honest, be respectful, don’t be an ass”—rules as applicable to everyday life as they are to relationships in general. According to MoreThanTwo.com, the successful polyamorist won’t try to force their partners or relationships into boxes and will instead allow each to take its most natural shape. A person in a polyamorous arrangement shouldn’t expect each relationship to resemble the other; it’s not a tit-for-tat equation.
Instead, MoreThanTwo advises individual partners not compare themselves to one another and instead be clear about their particular needs as they arise, and to accept the other people for who and what they are. A person with a polyamorous partner should check in on that partner’s other relationships, without inserting themselves into it. Focus on your relationship with your partner, without viewing it as an entity that exists in opposition to your partner’s relationship to anyone else.
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How to set boundaries for polyamory
When it comes to sex, clarify your boundaries: Is your partner using protection with their other partners? Are those other partners monogamous or having other sex themselves? Is everyone being tested regularly? Will you disclose to your partner the other sexual encounters you have, and will they do the same? To keep polyamorous sex safe, everyone needs to be on the same page about protection.
Of course, polyamory isn’t going to work for everyone, and those who can’t truly get on board with it shouldn’t feel ashamed or pressured. But for those who can, the elements that seem to signal success—trust, transparency, communication, honesty, flexibility, regular check-ins, STI testing before abandoning a condom—are the trademarks of most any healthy relationship, monogamous or not.
Editor’s note: This article is regularly updated for relevance.
Claire Lampen is a lifestyle reporter who covers sex, gender, and reproductive rights. Formerly a Fulbright fellow, she has published work with Vogue, Gizmodo, Refinery29, Teen Vogue, the BBC, Vice, Marie Claire, and more.