When my last essay appeared in Slate, a number of people were offended that I compared polyamory and homosexuality. The commenters’ chief objection seemed to be that homosexuality is innate, like race, and therefore “more worthy” of civil rights, while polyamory is a choice.
Even a cursory examination of the facts will blur any claim of a black-and-white, binary distinction. Sexual orientation—how sexual desire and emotional connection are informed by the physical sex and gender performance of a potential partner—is informed by both nurture and nature. Otherwise you couldn’t possibly get the vast differences that are observed across cultures and eras. There’s good reason to believe that it’s partly genetic and perhaps partly developmental as well, but at the margin, there are surely some people for whom same-sex intimacy is a choice.
Meanwhile, there are some people whose innate personality traits make it very difficult to live happily in a monogamous relationship but relatively easy to be happy in an open one. Given the persecution heaped on gays in most of the world in recent generations, and the relative difficulty of “passing,” there are probably few people who would choose that identity unless they could not find happiness in straight life. So, sure, there may be a larger fraction of non-monogamists for whom their unconventional relationship is “optional” or “a choice.” But there are almost certainly also some “obligate” non-monogamists who would never feel emotionally satisfied and healthy in a monogamous relationship, any more than a gay man would be satisfied and healthy in a straight marriage.
For many polyamorists, the idea of a partner telling them that they can never, under any circumstance, embrace their feelings for a new partner feels terrifying and stifling. If you’re a monogamist, the idea of your partner wanting somebody else may make you ask, “Why am I not enough for you?” But if you are innately poly, the idea of a primary partner trying to cut you off from even the possibility of new love fills you with a parallel anguish: “I promise I’ll never spend so much time and energy elsewhere that it takes away anything I promised to you, any more than I’d let work or hobbies take me away from you. You’ll get everything from me that you always have. Why isn’t my adoration and devotion enough for you?”
I have little experience with non-monogamists who are purely interested in outside sex without wanting emotional involvement. I would guess that among swingers, there’s a larger fraction for whom it’s “optional”—essentially a hobby. However, I also expect that if you asked enough of them, you’d find some who would tell you that they can’t imagine feeling fulfilled any other way; that in order to be satisfied with their primary relationship, they need to experience others’ desire for their partner. Is that unusual, or even rare? Sure. But as long as everyone’s having fun and nobody’s getting hurt, why should that matter? The left-handed are also a small minority. That doesn’t mean we need to tag them as abnormal or aberrant. (Or sinister.)
I’m hopeful that the psychological and sociological studies of non-monogamists that are beginning to emerge will eventually address these issues clearly. My experience suggests that perhaps half to two-thirds of polyamorists—those who want to be able to fully embrace multiple loving relationships, with sex as merely part of that (albeit an important part, just as it is in monogamous relationships)—are “obligate poly.” I’ve heard a lot of stories from people about having a few miserable monogamous relationships before they were introduced to the concept of honest, consensual non-monogamy. I doubt there are many gay folks, anymore, who get to age 20 or 25 without learning that the kind of relationship they yearn for is actually possible. That kind of experience was common when I first joined the poly community in the ’90s. Media exposure is gradually ending that problem, just as it did for gays. I suppose it may also lead to an increase in the number of “optional poly” folks joining the community, just as increasing acceptance of same-sex relationships has probably encouraged more bi people to try a same-sex relationship.
Still, as much as I enjoy omphaloskeptical explorations of the origins of my tribe, when it comes to the more important question of social acceptance, this entire conversation is a red herring. The “born this way” argument has been politically useful, but the moral argument for acceptance of gay relationships doesn’t require it. Nobody ever claimed that Mildred and Richard Loving were born with some kind of overwhelming predisposition to prefer partners of another race and that they thus couldn’t marry somebody of their own race. Choosing an interracial partner was, and is, a choice. So what? The correct response to the nature vs. nurture question is: There’s no way to know for sure, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that people love each other, treat each other with respect, and live happy, productive lives.
A monogamous bisexual has the “choice” to simply settle down with an opposite-sex partner, without ever trying intimacy with a same-sex partner. You could even argue that a “truly” monogamous straight person would “choose” to settle down with their very first partner. But very few of us would seriously recommend that. The statistics say that those who marry young divorce far more frequently. Those who take the time to experiment and figure out what they really want from a relationship when they finally do marry, stay married and are better able to invest in their children. ...