If you read about polyamory in the media, you’ve probably seen The Photo: an image of three (or more) pairs of adult feet at the end of a bed, poking out from under a white duvet. In reality it is not one photo, but many, yet it’s a visual trope recycled so frequently and predictably that it might as well be just one. The Photo is supposed to provide a glimpse into the lives of those naughty non-monogamous people having their naughty non-monogamous sex; while only slightly risqué, it gets its point across—the point being that polyamory is all about having sex with lots of people.
You can see The Photo in action here in The Guardian, here at news.com, here at GetReligion.org, here at stuff.co.nz, here in theGeorgia Straight, here at Mic, here at Cafe Mom, here in Soot Magazine, here at Role Reboot, and here at The Frisky. Sometimes it’s not feet, just three or more people in a bed—under, yes, a white duvet. (I confess I don’t own a white duvet, but I didn’t realize it was such a sine qua non of poly life.)
There is more going on here than editorial laziness. It suggests that our culture’s default visual image for polyamory is “lots of people in bed together.” This hypersexualization of polyamory might be normalized, but it’s far from harmless. Because we live in a sex-negative society, presenting poly relationships as “just” sex is a powerful way of signaling that these relationships don’t deserve to be taken seriously.
“Presenting poly relationships as 'just' sex is a powerful way of signaling that these relationships don’t deserve to be taken seriously.”
Sex-negativity isn’t a uniform phenomenon—there are pockets of sex-positive people, pockets of the tragically repressed, and plenty of everything in between. But on the whole, we tend to think that “real”-love relationships are serious—and should be shored up with social and legal privileges—whereas sex is “just” sex. When poly relationships are hypersexualized, they are also shuffled out of the realm of what we are taught to respect.
The instinct to sex up poly life can rear its head even in the very venues where we are trying to explain why it is a problem. A few months ago I gave an interview to a journalist for an article about polyamory in the print edition of Cosmopolitan UK. Her article was well-written and well-researched; it addressed various issues that can come up in poly relationships, like scheduling, jealousy, misrepresentation, and stigma. The journalist included some material from my interview on how polyamory is often stigmatized through hypersexualization and sex-negativity.
So perhaps you can imagine how demoralized I was when I saw that Cosmo had chosen to illustrate this article with full-page, full-color, graphic images of a pile of naked people in mid-orgy. And that the article itself was presented under the subheading “Young, hot and…polyamorous. Why everyone you know is getting multiple action.” Not only that, the front-page headline was “Greedy Lovers: Is a Foursome the New Threesome?” This bore no connection to the article; it was only used to play up the stereotype that poly people are sexually greedy. (The accusation is upside-down when you think about it: Poly people may “share” their partners with others, while the monogamous relationship model dictates keeping a person “all to yourself.” More critically, though, the whole idea of “greed” only makes sense in this context if you think relationships are all about what you can get. What a miserable outlook on love, sex, and life that must be.)
Whoever was in charge of these editorial decisions made theCosmo article into a perfect example of the exact problem I described in it. Either they didn’t read my quotes, or they didn’t care about what I said. I suppose giant orgy photos sell magazines, and what happens to people like me doesn’t matter much to Cosmo. But it matters to me. This kind of harmful imagery is partly to blame for the fact that I get called a “cum-dumpster” and a “cheap skank that bones a bunch of dudes” when I talk openly about being in two loving relationships. It’s what makes strangers feel okay about saying that my partners and I are trash, that our relationships are hopeless, that I’m only pretending to be married, that they hope I get STIs, that I already have STIs, that I’m disgusting.
It’s important to note that the harms caused by the hypersexualization of polyamory are not equally distributed among its targets. As a poly woman, you stand to be labeled a “slut” without a second thought, and there is no male equivalent. Being poly doesn’t necessarily entail having any sex (never mind nightly orgies!): It’s also consistent with being asexual, not being in any relationships, or just, you know, not having sex—like how monogamous people are sometimes allowed to be not having sex. But that’s irrelevant to how stereotypes and stigmas work. The assumption is that if you are poly, you are having sex and liking it—and, what’s more, you are constantly doing it with lots of people.
“As a poly woman, you stand to be labeled a 'slut' without a second thought, and there is no male equivalent.”
Due to the gendered norms for sexual behavior, everything about this harms poly women far more than men. In fact, any kind of privilege can help protect you from the costs of being openly poly. It’s less costly for rich white people to be out as poly, which reinforces another stereotype: that poly people are all rich and white. (In the examples of The Photo that I listed above, you might have noticed that the feet in the bed are all as white as the bourgeois bedding from which they emerge. Of course, this is probably also because the majority of stock photos feature white people.)
Strategically devaluing disfavored relationships by “reducing” them to sex is nothing new. The same strategy has long been deployed against same-sex relationships and interracial relationships. It’s effective not only as a way of inciting disgust and disapprobation, but more insidiously as a means of othering—making the people in those relationships seem weird and alien and not like us. We fall in love and have serious relationships, butthose people are lust-driven animals. It’s okay to treat them like garbage.
It is tempting to push back by demanding that poly relationships be treated as “real” love, and distanced from sex. In a sense this can work, the way “love is love” works, to make a particular kind of relationship seem more “respectable.” But it also throws sex under the bus. When sex-negativity is weaponized against us, we can run from the weapon—reinforcing its effectiveness—or we can work on disarming it.
I say “or,” but this isn’t really an either-or situation. It’s a battle that needs to be won on both fronts. We certainly need to end the stereotyping of polyamory as hypersexual, and the concomitant stigmatization of poly people and relationships. But sex-negativity has also got to go. Sex can be valuable, and sexual relationships are worth respecting—even for women—and until that message is received, someone or something will continue to be denigrated for being “too sexy,” even if it’s not always polyamory in the firing line.
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