“Are You Monogamous or Polyamorous?”–THE WRONG QUESTION

poly hands

This article originally appeared on ArcaneAdvice.com.

It’s time someone addressed a Single MASSIVE MISCONCEPTION regarding this question which gets asked in almost every Alternative Sexuality genre, including the BDSM / Fetish Scene. The answer will hopefully make you THINK, and it is interesting to note that we here in the BDSM Community have a few extra philosophical points to address on this question…. this utterly ERRONEOUS question. Far too often people make bad choices because they believe this question to be like a compass when in fact, as I will show you in a moment, it is more like a magnet attached to a bird flying in circles around the compass. The result is NOT a better idea of your partner. Instead the result of asking this question is almost always a mis-reading, misinformation (not necessarily intended), and getting only farther from a viable, useful answer.

How often does an individual in the world of dating get asked, “Are you Polyamorous or Monogamous?” I find the question pops up all the time. It is always asked as a Black & White issue, an On/Off switch, and the one making the inquiry always acts as though the answer will give them some incredible understanding, a singular “truth” about the person to whom they are speaking. Unfortunately, the question itself is founded on thinking that is so Completely Reductionistic that it is basically the equivalent of asking, “do you think Europe is Bad or Good?” Any sane person would say they like some countries, like others less, had a great time in one location, had a bad time in another location, etc etc. Agreeing to even answer a question like “do you think Europe is Bad or Good?” is agreeing to be viewed as a generalizing fool. The question itself makes zero room for the actual variety of experiences one can have in Europe, individual tastes, native languages spoken (which can affect one’s experience), preference of climate, and a hundred other factors.

Equally, the question, “Are you Polyamorous or Monogamous?” is setting up an EXTREMELY LIMITED set of options that in NO WAY reflect that Actual, WIDE Parameters that are involved in this genre of Human Sexuality. When someone inquires asking THE WRONG QUESTION, “Are you Polyamorous or Monogamous?” most of the time they have an Erroneous Definition of Polyamory in their mind to begin with. This foolhardy and uninformed definition of Polyamory tends to equate to one EXTREME end of polyamorous activity only, namely the “full-swap orgy.” So the WRONG QUESTION, “are you Polyamorous or Monogamous?” is IN FACT generally asking, “Do you never, EVER have any form of sexual contact with anyone besides your chosen partner, or do you jump into full orgies where everyone has sex with everyone else?” This is an absolutely IDIOTIC QUESTION that does not in any way, shape, or form take into consideration the FULL SPECTRUM of activities and degrees of involvement that lay between these two absolute extremes. Its like walking into an ice cream parlor with DOZENS of flavors and asking the person with you to choose between vanilla or chocolate — what about all the MANY OTHER flavors?? Its like asking a new prospective BDSM play partner if their style is about canes or pony-play — what about the HUNDREDS of other ways to explore BDSM? The RIGHT QUESTIONS would be, “what are your favorite flavors?” and “what kinds of BDSM activity are you into?”

You probably are already seeing where I am going with this, but before we really tear into it, lets step back and look at the issue on a few basic levels, starting with Psychobiology. Fasten your seatbelts – this is going to be a crash course in Psychobiology (if you want an INTENSELY deeper scientific understanding of these things, read “The Evolution of Desire” by David Buss).

To begin with, think of humans as effectively Cave People who learned to drive cars. The bulk of our mating habits have not changed in a million years. All that has really changed are the conventions of “the tribe,” aka Society, that have been layered on top of these same primal instincts that still rule our DNA’s desire to make more DNA.

Consider the prehistoric basis of Mating Impulses:

1) No matter how much you may want to shake your fist at the sky and despise biology, the male mammal is designed to be able to procreate with multiple females. This is biology. The male half of most species produces enough semen to inseminate a vastly large number of females, and the actual number of partners is decided by the Mating Dance between males & females offset by Male Competition for access to fertile females. Females retain what Psychobiologists call “female choosiness,” the same process in many species wherein the female selects an inseminating male based on his genetic traits as evidenced in an overt manner through one of several means: physical prowess, leadership, health of skin / brightness of feathers, strength of presence / magnitude of song, access to and control of resources, etc. Her selection is equally offset by competition with other females for access to the best genes of the males. Human Civilization has modified these areas and what once was the highest criteria for mate selection back in cave man days is now sublimated to an entirely different set of criteria for modern society. For example, someone with almost zero physical prowess – i.e. one who would have been a lousy hunter in cave man days – might still register well for mate selection due to a secure access to resources (high income or above-average social connections, etc) in modern times.

2) The human female is designed to create one baby per gestation on a normal basis, and the human gestation period of nine months is one of the longer gestation periods of mammals in general.

3) Monogamous habits tend to be created with mammals that have longer gestation periods with fewer offspring produced. The shorter the gestation (i.e. weeks) and the larger number of offspring produced, the more likely the species will have polyamorous habits. As the gestation period of a species grows into many months and the number of typical offspring gets lower, the likelihood of Pair-Bonding increases. For example, Blue Whales who produce one calf with a gestation period of up to 12 months tend to be monogamous. This is not a hard & fast rule however. Elephants have a 22 month gestation period and are absolutely not monogamous as a rule. Wolves have a gestation period of only about 2 months, yet long-term monogamous pair-bonding amongst wolves is quite common.

4) The longer debilitated state of the pregnant female mammal with a long gestation period which produces few offspring will induce behavior in her to insure the presence of the male mammal as provider-protector during the debilitated state and early stages of growth in the offspring. The male mammal in the same scenario tends to stick around to insure the survival of his DNA / survival of the species. These behaviors of the male and female happen on a DNA level – it is a subconscious process that can be viewed all over the animal kingdom. It is a hard-wired response. In cave-man days when these behaviors became hard-wired, the survival of offspring was very dubious at best. In the modern world elements such as clean water, medicine, and social safe-guards tend to insure a much higher survival rate of offspring.

5) The average person in the modern world grows up with the perception that survival of one’s offspring will pretty much be a given (barring negative anomalies). Thus, on a purely biological level, the male has almost no actual need to worry about their offspring (aka their DNA) staying alive to make more DNA and pass along the genetic legacy. The female equally knows on a purely biological / DNA level that the male’s presence as protector is less needed due to social safe-guards. Her debilitation during the latter phases of gestation is still an issue, and the lifestyle in which the child will be raised is now more the concern of both parents rather than whether or not the infant will survive.

Thus the modern Human Condition, aka Modern Civilization, provides assurances that defy some of the hard-wired behaviors surrounding any biological basis for monogamy in the modern human mammal. To put it more simply, the realities of the modern world in many ways (but NOT ubiquitously) provide cause to over-ride the monogamous impulses from cave man days. Monogamy in the modern world is therefore more of a STYLISTIC CHOICE than a biological necessity. This stylistic choice can be the result of peer pressure, religion, social standards of a local community, or even perfectly reasonable personal desire.

Alright. That concludes your Intro To Psychobiology lesson. Now lets see how all of this dovetails into an understanding of why – and how – people seek out multiple sexual partners (or NOT), and even more importantly, the VARIETY of ways in which this happens.

Consider the word “Variety.” It denotes a multitude of choices. It denotes a stark contrast to a simple selection between merely two polarities. Variety is the opposite of Dichotomy. Variety connotes a LACK of the described subject as being a black & white choice. In the FETISH SCENE we experience a VAST Variety in the ways that we as Fetish Folk express and experience our BDSM Lives. There are literally HUNDREDS of ways to play in the BDSM Universe. Bondage, flogging, gags, fur, riding crops, role play, blindfolds, paddles, foot worship, dominance, submission, canes, protocols, fetish fashion…. the list of ways a Fetishist can Safely and Sanely express themselves is almost ENDLESS. This VARIETY we experience is like a giant smorgasbord of choices and naturally we gravitate to the “dishes” and “flavors” of Fetish Experience that most please our palate. Some flavors are more common, like Bondage, while other flavors are for people with more exotic tastes, such as High Protocol D/s.

KEY POINT:
So too is there a VARIETY of ways in which Human Mating Habits, as expressed in single or multiple partner selection, can occur. It is NOT a black & white issue. Hold This Thought In Mind.

CONCESSION FOR THE HARD-LINERS:
Ok. Yes, lets establish a monogamous baseline at ONE END OF THE SPECTRUM of this Variety Of Human Mating Habits for the purpose of comparison. We will call this “True and Total Monogamy.” The definition of this form of Human Sexuality equates to an absolute, often religiously supported, adherence to the prescript that both people in the couple will not EVER experience sex with anyone besides their partner. Not under any circumstance. Not even making out with an outsider. Not even kissing. We will also presume for the sake of discussion that in said couple’s report of their being hard-line monogamists that they are both being truthful in their reports, that neither has EVER (not once!) fooled-around nor cheated on their partner. Needless to say a menage-a-trois is out of the question. Not even once.

Now ask yourself: How many hardline monogamists – as defined above – do you personally know? Who have NEVER EVER cheated, never had an affair, never fooled around, never had a menage-a-trois with their partner (and never will), and who you will take it for granted that their report of this is absolutely honest from both people?

Don’t jump into cynicism! I am not advocating that AT ALL. I personally know couples who fit the above description. Whether or not they will adhere to this monogamy forever can only be taken on their word. I DO believe it is possible for a couple to be so infatuated and pleased with their partner that others just do not interest them at all. I also know that EVERY Long-Term Relationship takes EFFORT, DESIRE, and WORK from both people involved if they are to create a genuine and flourishing, healthy relationship. For the couples for whom I do believe they are honest in their long-term monogamy, they have the overwhelming quality of Mutual Respect for their partner, and a clear desire to Succeed together. If sex with others crosses their mind it is immediately dismissed as a lower value than the high value of the one they are with, every time, and this is a happy choice, not a brow-beaten concession. This kind of a couple often expresses themselves in a “team-of-two” manner, obviously bouncing off each other and working well together in general.

NONETHELESS, I bet a LOT of you answered the “How Many Do You Know?” question above with an answer equating to “Not Many.” THINK about why that is?
Is it that the couples who do not fit this bill had one partner cheat on the other? Is it because they had a single menage-a-trois? Is it because they are hardcore, full-swap swingers? Is it because the female half has outside girlfriends? Is it because they are in a D/s family? Is it because they play with others at the BDSM Club, doing scenes that involve kissing or fondling an outsider in public? And in all of these cases are they always couples having trouble? Or are they sometimes quite happy in their chosen expression? Do they have the situation well-negoiated? Do they play-it-by-ear with some basic rules and understandings? Are they tightly bonded and highly in-tune with the knowledge that outsiders are fun but stay outsiders? Do they have a regular third partner? Does that partner stay over and sleep in their bed or does the third person go home after play?

WHAT’S THAT YOU SAY? That “well there is a VARIETY of ways that Couples Express Their Sexuality With Outsiders, that its NOT a BLACK & WHITE subject.”
Bingo, Bulls-Eye & Kudos.

Lets digress from the BDSM / Fetish community for a moment and look at the world of SWINGERS. Non-Swingers tend to apply ONE DEFINITION to people in the Swinging Community, which (Erroneously) says that, “All Swingers are Polyamorous.” But lets look at THE REALITY of the VARIETY within the SWINGING Scene.

Swingers have a wide VARIETY of ways they play. One couple in the Swinging Scene might enjoy the “orgiastic” vibe of a Swinger party yet the couple ONLY PLAYS WITH THEIR OWN PARTNER – they just enjoy the voyeuristic aspect and openly sexual vibe. Another couple in the Swinging Scene might only have the female half play with other women in a very light fashion, just kissing and fondling in a playful way. Yet another couple might have both the man and the woman kissing and fondling a third. Still a different couple might go to Swinger Events to hook up with a third woman to take her back to their room and go to town upon her (menage-a-trois). Yet a different couple might express their Swinging nature by having the man watch as his female partner goes down on a third partner. Another couple might have a mutual ok to engage in anything up to oral sex, but no penetration, with outsiders. A different couple engages in “full swap” where anything goes at the party but all outside activity stays at the party. Yet another couple enjoys having the woman hook up with another woman while the male partners on both ends simultaneously play with their own woman. And this is NOT a complete list.

THE POINT:
Even in the Swinger Scene there is a WIDE VARIETY of ways that “polyamorous” activity expresses. So for the sake of discussion lets make up a false fact that says that Swingers have specifically 15 different ways that they can express ANY form of sexuality that involves others, from mere voyeurism through to full-swap.

Now lets add the number of ways a couple can play with an outside partner WITHOUT being members of the Swinger Scene:

— menage-a-trois on a regular basis (say monthly)
— menage-a-trois seasonally
— menage-a-trois maybe a few times a year
— menage-a-trois once with their partner just to satisfy mutual curiosity

Side Note: PLAYBOY Magazine ran a survey in the 1970’s where they interviewed 3000 men and woman across America. They asked people to report their #1 sexual fantasy. UNIVERSALLY the #1 answer of both men and women was “menage-a-trois” which is why it tops the current list I am creating here. As a fun additional note, the #4 choice of men and #5 choice of women was some kind of BDSM fantasy. 😉

Continuing with the list of ways a couple can play with an outside partner WITHOUT being members of the Swinger Scene:
— they can have a full-time third partner, i.e. be in a Trio
— they can both have multiple partners, i.e. have several outside play partners as in an “open relationship”
— they can be in a poly family / poly D-s family
— they can be monogamous in their home city and play with outsiders only when they travel
— they might stick to only BDSM Play on an outside sub, topping the third person together but no penetration
— they might orchestrate BDSM scenes with outsiders only at clubs, never at home
— the Dom might train multiple subs yet only have sex with his “Alpha”
— the couple might live as Dom & sub at home, yet enjoy vanilla play outside
— the couple might belong to a private group who enjoys BDSM play with the other members of the group
— the Dom might allow the sub to play with an outsider while the Dom observes
— the Dom might have several full-time slaves besides their “Alpha” who are sexual partners, and these outsiders may or may not spend time at the couple’s house
— the couple might live as hardcore Dom & sub yet they only act as Dual Doms to any outsiders, whether play partner, slave or otherwise
— the couple might be monogamous in their home city but have a negotiation regarding being allowed to play with others when apart from each other for a length of time
— the couple may have unusual rules around intimacy with outsiders, such as no kissing on the lips, or a certain toy or toys that are never, ever used on outsiders
— the couple might be completely Tantric with each other, yet merely casual with all outsiders

ETC, ETC, ETC!

For the sake of discussion, lets also create a false “fact” here that says this list could at least contain 30 variations of ways a couple can play with an outside partner WITHOUT being members of the Swinger Scene.

The point I am trying to make here is that if you take the 15 ways Swingers express any form of sexuality that involves others / outsiders, AND you add the above 30 or so ways a couple can play with an outside partner WITHOUT being members of the Swinger Scene, you have (and this is a mere, off-the-cuff ESTIMATION) at LEAST 45 different ways that a couple can express ANY form of sexuality that involves others!!!

As a philosophical side-note, a friend of mine put forth the proposition that 24/7 Lifestyle D/s is inherently Polyamorous. I do not know that I necessarily agree as I am a firm believer in the sheer magnitude of the magic a tightly bonded Master and slave can experience. However for the sake of presenting all sides, here is how his argument went:
A Master wants his cherished slave to be his “Everything Girl.” This is why he takes so much time and joy in her Training. Yet the reality of most people is that they cannot be all things to any one person. Thus the Dom inherently encounters Needs where a second or third submissive is required to fill those needs. An example of this is how a Dom/me might need a slave for cooking and domestic, another slave to tend the garden, a sexual / passion slave, a slave for hardcore BDSM play, a slave for pet play, a slave with secretarial skills, etc. If the Dom can have all these in One Person that is fantastic and a true blessing. Otherwise the 24/7 Lifestyle D/s structure would dictate (according to my associate) that additional people would need to be brought on board.
I understand where my associate is coming from but I do not necessarily agree that outside people “Must” be brought in. I think it reverts back to the discussion above that ONE VARIATION of Polyamory in 24/7 Lifestyle BDSM would be where the Dom has multiple subs to fulfill multiple needs. In some variations the Dom would have a variety of degrees of sexual connection with these additional subs, while in other variations the Dom would reserve varying degrees (or all) of their sexuality for their primary partner / slave. So even if my associate was correct in his assumption (a debatable one at that) there would still be a VARIETY of WAYS that this would be able to be expressed.

Are you getting the picture yet?
One Word: VARIETY

THUS:
There are practically as many ways for a couple to express ANY form of sexuality that involves others, as there are FETISHES THAT ALL OF US IN THE BDSM SCENE ARE ABLE TO ENJOY! This is a MASSIVE ASPECT of the BEAUTY of the GREATER GLOBAL BDSM SCENE – the VARIETY of ways that we all get to Express Ourselves!! 😀

Would you walk up to a Dom and ask, “are you Skilled or Unskilled?”
Of course you would NOT! Trying to drop a Dom into a bucket of Skilled verses Unskilled is ASKING THE WRONG QUESTION. You would want to know WHERE the Dom’s skills were, what they were experts at, what they were semi-skilled at, whether or not their level of skill in certain Fetishes matched your desires of where you enjoyed playing and exploring.

Asking if you think Europe is “Good or Bad” is ASKING THE WRONG QUESTION.
You would want to know what parts of Europe a person loved and what parts they hated because THAT INFORMATION IS USEFUL (albeit utterly subjective and probably wise to cross-reference).

Would you ask someone, “Do you have Hard Limits?” and accept a Yes or No answer? Of course NOT! You would want DETAILS because people have a MASSIVE VARIETY of different kinds of Hard Limits. You would ask what is the Exact Nature of the person’s limits, because THAT INFORMATION IS TRULY USEFUL. Phrasing it into a Black & White dichotomy, a Yes or No question is ASKING THE WRONG QUESTION.

Knowing the VARIETY of ways that Polyamory can manifest in a healthy fashion (PLUS the realities of all the non-sanctioned non-monogamous activities that occur as a result of bad communication and dishonest reporting) means that asking someone the black & white question, “Are you Monogamous or Polyamorous?” is ASKING THE WRONG QUESTION.

THE RIGHT QUESTIONS and HOW YOU ASK THEM:

WHAT NEEDS TO BE ASKED are questions that, JUST LIKE NEGOTIATING with a new Dom or sub, help you discover the Exact Nature of the person’s desires, limits (both Hard and Soft), and EXACT PROCLIVITIES when it comes to the subject of expressing ANY form of sexuality that involves others.

It might be safer to say that there are TWO GOOD QUESTIONS:
1) “Are you a believer in and do you desire Hardcore, Hardline, True & Total Monogamy (at the absolute far end of the spectrum)?”
For the sake of brevity, perhaps Question #1 could be abbreviated:
“Are you a practitioner of Hardcore Monogamy?”

If the answer is NO (especially since quite often the HONEST answer would tend to be No, though again I think that if Hardcore, Hardline, True & Total Monogamy is your desire that you SHOULD stick to your beliefs and pursue finding that special someone who can truly reciprocate that back to you), then the second and MAIN QUESTION that is the RIGHT QUESTION TO ASK is:

2) “HOW do you express your polyamory?”
i.e. which of the 45 or more ways are YOUR ways?
or simply, “What is your preferred STYLE of Polyamory?”

THIS QUESTION will get you MUCH MUCH closer to seeing if the WIDE VARIETY of Styles Of Polyamorous Play line up for the two of you, where there may need to be some negotiation, where limits may be encountered, etc.

CASE IN POINT:

— THE WRONG QUESTION is about making a BLIND and IGNORANT JUDGEMENT CALL based on generally FALSE INFORMATION and REDUCTIONISTIC THINKING. The BLACK & WHITE thinking of the WRONG QUESTION only really ends up placing limitations on YOURSELF. The FUNDAMENTALISM of the WRONG QUESTION flies in the face and DENIES the basic prescript of intelligent NEGOTIATION (r.e. styles of poly play), a prescript required at the very foundation of healthy BDSM. Bottom Line – Fundamentalist Thinking and BDSM do NOT tend to make good bedfellows.

— THE RIGHT QUESTIONS, on the other hand, are an INTELLIGENT INVESTIGATION into your prospective new partner’s beliefs in an area as wide as discerning their preferred Fetishes. THE RIGHT QUESTIONS glean intelligent DETAILS of how they HONESTLY tend to proceed. THE RIGHT QUESTIONS set a person at ease, as they show that you understand that there are MANY ways to express Polyamorous activity. It shows you respect the individual take on the topic, just as you would respect someone’s individual take on BDSM, even if their preference is not your preference. LIKE BDSM, knowing someone’s Preference allows for Healthy Negotioation. When you acknowledge the SPECTRUM of possibilities by asking the RIGHT QUESTIONS, you OPEN DOORS and CREATE OPPORTUNITIES to explore and enjoy additional forms of mutually satisfying activities. You and your prospective new partner are then communicating in a way that is Honest, Forthright and, if the negotiation in this area is successful, may well contain additional ways for the two of you to have fun and explore together.

THE WRONG QUESTION or the RIGHT QUESTIONS.
Take your pick.

THE END RESULT:

Asking the RIGHT QUESTIONS will give people a SUPERIOR Understanding of the REALITIES of the vast world of GENUINE Human Sexuality (not just the parts that get a heap of dishonest lip service).

So next time someone asks you, “Are you Polyamorous or Monogamous?” tell them “That’s The Wrong Question,” and send them to read this article.

Or as I tell people jokingly nowadays who insist on asking me The Wrong Question:
“Its best if you think of me as Polyamorous although I cannot promise you that I am ever going to have sex with anyone else.”

EDIT:
Just a quick note to reiterate that the main article above, “Monogamy vs Polyamory – THE WRONG QUESTION” is not so much intended to be any kind of massive defense for the cause of Polyamory, as much as open the minds of people to re-think the concept of Monogamy in light of the REALITIES of what so-called “Monogamy” generally tends to ACTUALLY entail. Juxtaposing this with the VAST MISCONCEPTIONS about Polyamory, my goal is that people should have their eyes opened to the FULL SPECTRUM of activity and preferences that are available. I would like to see the ABSOLUTE END of the single, closed-minded, black & white question, “Are you Monogamous or Polyamorous” and have that question permanently replaced with a superior and intensely more comprehensive set of questions that truly tune-in to where an individual’s preferences lay on the SPECTRUM of possibilities. Making the Wide Parameters of that Spectrum cleanly apparent is a large part of the purpose of the article. It is NOT my intention to say that any one point on that spectrum, neither the extreme ends of the spectrum nor any of the numerous places in the middle, are better or more correct than any other point or preference.

Its all about Being Honest With Yourself.

You can contact Arcane through The Crow Academy and read more advice and writings here. Follow Arcane @CrowAcademy as well as on Facebook. His new book Igniting the Fire is available now on Amazon.

Comments

  1. Donald Guy says:

    really nice in depth examples of the differences. i never thought it could be so offensive to ask if you’re monogamous, poly, etc. maybe i should just stick to “what’s your scene?” lol

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