Laurie Penny: ‘I’ve been polyamorous for nearly a decade. Here’s how I make it work’

POLYAMORY — if you believe the newspapers — is the hot new lifestyle option for affectless hipsters with alarming haircuts, or a sex cult, or both.

A wave of trend articles and documentaries has thrown new light on the practice, also known as ‘ethical non-monogamy’, a technical term for any arrangement in which you’re allowed to date and snuggle and sleep with whomever you want, as long as everyone involved is happy. Responses to this idea range from parental concern to outright panic.

Sleeping around is all well and good, but do we have to talk about it? Have we no shame? What’s wrong, after all, with good old-fashioned adultery?

Having been polyamorous for almost a decade, I spend a good deal of time explaining what it all means.

When I told my magazine editor that I wanted to write about polyamory, she adjusted her monocle, puffed on her pipe and said, “In my day, young lady, we just called it ‘shagging around’.”

So I consider it my duty to her and the rest of the unenlightened to explain what it is that’s different about how the kids are doing it these days.

Laurie Penny has written about feminism for a range of publications. Picture: John Phillips/Getty Images

Laurie Penny has written about feminism for a range of publications. Picture: John Phillips/Getty ImagesSource:Getty Images

THE STATE OF POLYAMORY TODAY

The short answer is: it’s not the shagging around that’s new. There’s nothing new about shagging around.

I hear that it has been popular since at least 1963. What’s new is talking about it like grown-ups. It’s the conversations. It’s the texts with your girlfriend’s boyfriend about what to get her for her birthday. It’s sharing your Google Calendars to make sure nobody feels neglected.

The Daily Mail would have you believe that polyamory is all wild orgies full of rainbow-haired hedonists rhythmically thrusting aside common decency and battering sexual continence into submission with suspicious bits of rubber.

And there’s some truth to that. But far more of my polyamorous life involves making tea and talking sensibly about boundaries, safe sex and whose turn it is to do the washing-up.

Over the past 10 years, I have been a ‘single poly’ with no main partner; I have been in three-person relationships; I have had open relationships and dated people in open marriages.

The best parts of those experiences have overwhelmingly been clothed ones.

“HOW VERY MILLENNIAL”

There’s something profoundly millennial about polyamory, something quintessentially bound up with my fearful, frustrated, over-examined generation, with our swollen sense of consequence, our need to balance instant graffitication with the impulse to do good in a world gone mad.

We want the sexual adventure and the free love that our parents, at least in theory, got to enjoy, but we also have a greater understanding of what could go wrong.

We want fun and freedom, but we also want a good mark on the test. We want to do the right thing.

All of this makes polyamory sound a bit nerdy, a bit swotty — and it is.

I find myself bewildered when online trend pieces going for titillation clicks present polyamory as gruesomely hip or freakishly fashionable.

Polyamory is a great many things, but it is not cool. Talking honestly about feelings, will never be cool. discussing interpersonal boundaries and setting realistic expectations wasn’t cool in the 1970s, and it isn’t cool now. It is, however, necessary.

Talking honestly about feelings, discussing interpersonal boundaries and setting realistic expectations wasn’t cool in the 1970s, and it isn’t cool now. It is, however, necessary.

There is so little that makes ethical sense in the lives of young and youngish people today.

If there is an economic type that is over-represented among the poly people I have encountered, it is members of the precariat: what Paul Mason memorably called the middle-class ‘graduate with no future’.

Even the limited social and economic certainties that our parents grew up with are unavailable to us.

We are told, especially if we are women, that the answer to loneliness and frustration is to find that one, ideal partner who will fulfil all our emotional, financial, domestic and sexual needs.

We are told this even though we know full well that it doesn’t work out for a lot of people. Almost half of all marriages end in divorce.

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