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Challenging Poly Stereotypes In Media (and at Home)

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The media spotlight is on polyamory in a big way these days. In the past year and change, since I started writing about my open relationships, I've been approached by about 10 television producers wanting to do spots about my poly family.

A few of those came to nothing, a few I referred out to other poly folks and we've actually filmed segments for three of them. Only one has aired, though I expect the other two to do so at some point.

In addition to media I've been personally involved with, there's been Showtime's reality series, the Oprah Winfrey Network's recent hour-long documentary and many other TV spots, articles and news items. The revolution may not be televised, but suddenly, my romantic life is.

What does all this media mean?

On the one hand, it's great to have the media taking a look at polyamory. I never tire of telling the world how much I love my people and how wonderful the lives we share are. We're healthy and happy and having a good time. That's a great thing to show the world: Look, here's an idea that is really good for some people.

It's especially good to show this side of things because so many people perceive polyamory as a problem. It's weird, it's deviant, it's immoral, it means you have commitment problems or low self-esteem. You can do it if you must, but it has to be a shameful secret. Don't let the kids find out. Don't let your mom catch you. What do the neighbors think? Etc.

So it turns out my mom likes my girlfriend and my kids are fine and the neighbors don't care what I do as long as I trim my forsythia and shovel the snow. And it's great to be given a huge media platform to bust some of these harmful myths about polyamory and show off the good thing I have going.

On the other hand, the media isn't simply holding up a mirror to the reality of polyamory. They're shaping the cultural perception of what polyamory is and who does it by carefully choosing the stories they tell.

A little while back, Andrea Zanin at Sex Geek published this fascinating (and perilously long) article on what she sees as "polynormativity" in the media. It's pretty strident, and rather polarizing. I know a lot of people who felt threatened and attacked reading it, like their personal practice of polyamory was under fire.

I certainly felt taken to task. Which I think makes sense, since the target of her article is "polynormative" people appearing on TV to talk about polyamory. She might not have meant me personally, but she easily could have.

I think the article is poorly written, honestly. So I'm sorry for making you read it. But you really should, because her thinking is good and a lot of her critique is spot on. For example:

The most fundamental element of polyamory -- that of rejecting the monogamous standard, and radically rethinking how you understand, make meaning of and practice love, sex, relationships, commitment, communication, and so forth -- is lost in favour of a cookie-cutter model that's as easy as one, two, three.

She defines polynormativity as starting with a couple, who rely on hierarchy and rules to protect the primacy of the original couple, and who are demographically young, white, conventionally attractive and straight. She doesn't mention class or gender identity as essential components, but it's a safe bet that affluence and cis-gendered bodies are part of the polynormative package.

It's easy to see me and my family and friends through that lens. Not because that's who we really are, but because that's who TV producers choose to portray.

In real life, I'm on Andrea's side in the radical relationship department. For my own life, I hate rules and hierarchies. I'm queer as f**k and also a big slut.

Good luck figuring any of that out from TV. TV makes it look like I have A Husband and A Boyfriend and A Girlfriend (in that order), not a spectrum of relationships with different friends and lovers and partners. There's no sex in my TV relationships. On TV, I never worry about money. My husband's Latin American background is erased, as is his complex queer identity.

It doesn't matter how loudly we disclaim the polynormative model. When "20/20" filmed us, they were here for three days to get seven minutes of final footage. They spent many hours talking to us all as a group and to each of us individually. All the brilliant, witty, insightful things my unmarried lovers and friends said wound up on the cutting room floor; they used only interview material from the two married couples in the group. That sure made those pairings look like primary relationships in a way that the original interviews did not.

They took hours of footage of me with the two women I was romantically linked to, and used only a few seconds of it, while focusing lots of screen time on my lunch date with the charming young man I hang out with. That editing choice sure made me look straight in a way the original filming did not.

So the problem as I see it isn't that the media is cleverly choosing people who do poly a certain way and depicting their lives. In my case, at least, it's that the media is cleverly misrepresenting my life to fit a certain model.

You may or may not see a problem here. Maybe the media image of polyamory reflects your experience in a meaningful and positive way. Plenty of people feel comfortable in their primary-couple-centered relationships. Rules work for many people; my partners and I have a few here and there ourselves.

Plenty of people don't thrive in this model, though. Many people feel marginalized by representations of polyamory that focus only on people with a lot of privilege around marital status, race, class, gender and sexual identity. It's hard to find your place in a community that looks monolithic.

So how can those of us who are representing and defining polyamory (either in the media or in conversation with our friends and families) do it in a more inclusive way? How can our communities legitimately become more inclusive?

To get at these questions, I corresponded with Pepper Mint, who organized the OpenSF conference for non-monogamous folks of all stripes in San Francisco last year. Pepper writes, "I think it is really crucial for community leaders and activists to educate themselves about issues of discrimination and power around race, gender, ability, sexuality and so on. This is not an easy process, but is very worth it. "

His experience with media is that they will go for the most mainstream representatives of polyamory they can get their hands on, and for this reason, Pepper encourages those of us who talk to media to stress our own non-mainstream qualities and also encourage a diverse array of people to step forward to talk with media people.

It's not just in the media that polyamory is represented and images of it are formed, though. We need to take care to challenge assumptions in ourselves and in our friends and family as well.

Pepper says:

Any time someone says 'poly people are...; or something similar, call them on it. And at the same time, if you have gotten the impression that poly people are a certain way, remember that your impression almost certainly springs from the fact that you have only seen a self-selecting slice of the poly world....To let such things pass is to only hurt ourselves, as such generalizations swiftly degrade into sex-shaming or stereotyping. Remind folks that any established sexual minority community is huge, and the people in it will have very different backgrounds, sexualities, motives, identities, and so on.

I have ideas about how to proceed with this.

1. Watch your language: Try to be mindful of assumptions that reinforce the mainstream image of polyamory. A lot of them may be built right into your language.

2. Be inclusive! Reach out to people whose lives and identities are different from your own. This is especially important if your life does at least superficially reflect the "polynormative" model, as mine does. Do what you can to include people from a wide variety of backgrounds and circumstances and demographics in whatever you're doing. Pepper stresses the importance of creating events that are accessible and attractive to people from a diverse range of backgrounds and sexualities.

3. Pervert expectations: A lot of the questions you'll get when you talk to people unfamiliar with polyamory won't make sense. Don't feel obliged to answer them. If there's not a bright line for you between your "serious" relationships and your "friends with benefits," don't draw one just to make a reporter (or your mom!) happy. If the phrase "poly couple" doesn't make any sense in your life, gently correct the person who uses it. You don't need to fit the reality of your polyamory into a monogamous framework.

More important than merely presenting a more diverse image of polyamory to the media and our social circles is embracing a richer, more diverse model of relationships and community. I asked Pepper how our communities could become more diverse and inclusive. He said: "I think the non-monogamous population already is quite diverse, and so it is just a matter of being able to recognize that diversity and hold events that actually cater to people across it."

Non-monogamous communities are small, marginalized groups with a lot of popular misunderstandings surrounding them. In that context, it might seem foolish to be worrying too much about the whitewashing of our media image. But as our communities become more visible, it seems like the perfect moment to ensure that we become visible in all our diverse, complicated beauty. There's not one right way to do polyamory, and there's not one demographic that does it. Let's celebrate that.