Saturday, November 24, 2012

Poly Wanna ... ?

Dan Savage, by contrast, gave me the giggles last week.  His latest column includes a letter from a " 30-year-old straight man who has always known that he is a poly."  ("Poly" being short for "polyamorous.")  This man is romantically involved with a woman who "is a monogamous person."  His question: "Can someone who is poly be happy with someone who isn't?"

Dan got into a big huff.
You are not “a poly.”

Poly is not a sexual identity, PP, it’s not a sexual orientation. It’s not something you are, it’s something you do. There’s no such thing as a person who is “a poly,” just as there’s no such thing as a person who is “a monogamous.” Polyamorous and monogamous are adjectives, not nouns. There are only people—gay, straight, bi—and some people are in monogamous relationships, some are in open relationships, some are in polyamorous relationships, some are in monogamish relationships, some are in four-star-general relationships. These are relationship models, PP, not sexual identities.
He was partially right.  Polyamory is not a sexual identity, because "sexual identity" means your sense of yourself as male or female.  (Which is not the same as being male or female.)  Nor is it a sexual orientation, since "sexual orientation" refers to the sex of the persons you are erotically interested in.  But both of these words get thrown around carelessly in ways that chips away at their actual meaning.  "Sexual orientation," for example, has been incorrectly applied to pedophilia, although children are not a sex.  "Sexual identity" is routinely confused with "sexual orientation."  This happens partly because of the ambiguity of "sex" and "sexual" in English, an ambiguity which many people seem bent on muddying even more than it already is.

But Savage is wrong that there's no such a thing as a person who is a "poly": he's answering a question from such a person.  The distinction between adjectives and nouns in English is vague, as is the difference between a person who does something and a person who is something.  There is no reason why a person who prefers non-monogamous relationships shouldn't "identify" as a poly, or just as polyamorous.

Savage's declarations can just as easily be applied to gay people, and have been.  For example, a homosexual relationship is a relationship (usually erotic) between two people of the same sex; you might say, and probably should say that "homosexual" is a relationship model, not a kind of person.  A homosexual, or bisexual, or heterosexual, is not a kind of person, any more than a Protestant or a Catholic is a kind of person. Gore Vidal insisted that this was the case for decades, as did Alfred Kinsey.  Indeed, one of the enduring claims of human sexual behavior and stigma-avoidance is that only one person in a homosexual act is "homosexual": the other, if male, is "trade," "normal," a "real man."  Just because you've, you know, experimented once or twice or a hundred times with gay sex, that doesn't mean you're gay; maybe you're just bi-curious.  Two male homosexuals fooling around together is "lesbianism."  This assumption also underlies most current scientific research on "sexual orientation."

Given the way language works, though, I don't see how it is unreasonable for people to refer to themselves by nouns or adjectives that refer to their relationship models, to the work they do, the religion they practice, the country they were born in, the language they speak, the hand they favor for writing, and so on.  This only becomes a problem when a person starts to believe that claiming an identity is evidence of the "kind of person they are."  It doesn't prove that you were born that way, or that your identity is your nature, or anything like that.  Many gay people, including Dan Savage, do make this mistake, but it is still a mistake.  He can see that when his poly reader makes it, but not when he makes it.

And yet, it doesn't seem implausible to me that a person might prefer non-monogamous relationships, or monogamous ones, as a matter of temperament.  This aspect of temperament might be influenced by biological factors, even (gasp!) by one's genes.  I'm sure that an enterprising psychologist would be able to generate plenty of meaningless correlations that would be used to argue just that, a genetic basis for nonmonogamy.  (Indeed, Dan himself enthusiastically endorsed a book which argued that human beings, especially males, are 'naturally' nonmonogamous.  How soon we forget... )  In which case it's not going very far at all to claim polyamory as a temperament, an essence, a kind of person.  Kinds of person are defined in all sorts of ways that have nothing to do with biology: language, place of national origin, marital status, religion, occupation.  And once you've opened the door to the idea that gay people could claim same-sex desire as a basis for identity, why not accept "poly" as an identity?  You have to give good reasons why not, but Dan Savage only offers ex cathedra pronouncements.  Why does he react so strongly against the idea?