Polyamory, Consensual Non-Monogamy and Relationship Anarchy

In the 21st century, we are surrounded by the (often contradictory) rules and regulations of how to endure relationships and ensure they’re enduring. Social media sites are covered with numerous articles about ‘What men secretly hate’, and our television screens have been taken over by reality TV shows such as Married at First Sight, First Dates and the The Undateables. As a culture, we have become obsessed with the ‘how tos’ and ‘what nots’ of finding and maintaining ‘true love’.

And in the age of Tinder, Grindr and eHarmony where 1/4 of marriages now begin with romance blossoming online, love has become as instantaneous as that illicit Facebook stalk, as selective as swiping left, and as easily disposable as pressing the delete button. With no obligations, no commitments and no certainty, who can blame us for looking for advice on how to survive the process.

However, as Dr Meg John Barker and Dr Jacqui Gabb make clear in their book, The Secrets to Enduring Love, “it’s clear that there’s obviously no one-size-fits-all set of rules for doing relationships”. For this reason, many now take it into their own hands to “come up with new rules for their relationships, either in groups or communities, or on their own”.

_MG_4720_copyOne example of this is consensual non-monogamy, often referred to as polyamory. Polyamory is the practice of loving more than one person at once. The topic was explored in an event at Manchester Metropolitan University on Sunday 21st February 2016 as part of the Humanities in Public festival’s Sex strand of events.

The event brought together researchers, activists and community organisers for a conversation as diverse as the practice itself. Discussion included relationship diversity, exclusion, visibility, relationship ethics and the practical challenges of living in non-monogamous or polyamorous relationships and families, with some inevitable and appreciated ‘how tos’ on the difficulties of naming, coming out, and acceptance.

The day gave many people the opportunity to ask questions and understand more about the practice, which is often regarded ‘deviant’ and chastised or sensationalised in the media. However, following the Ashley Madison scandal last year, the ethical reasons for considering consensual non-monogamy become clear.

Dr Meg John Barker

Dr Meg John Barker

Dr Meg John Barker spoke at the event, and communicated the “anti-help” method used in Re-Writing the Rulesand The Secrets to Enduring Love. Dr Barker suggested that there is something wrong with wider culture, and instead encouraged people to “find their own way”, as it says in Re-Writing the Rules: “perhaps the only rule of this book is that there isn’t going to be one universal answer”.

Rich Daley Co-coordinator of Yorkshire O.P.E.N. said “Being in an open relationship feels like the most normal, comfortable and happy thing in the world to those who are polyamorous, including me. But society and mainstream culture haven’t caught up yet, so there’s a lot of dissonance when dealing with people who don’t understand, or working through our more poly-specific relationship issues”.

Gesa Mayer Photo credit: Laisla Rodrigues

Gesa Mayer

Dr Gesa Mayer from Hamburg University of Applied Social Sciences gave a paper entitled Polyaffectivity: Challenging Monogamy’s Logic of Lack, in which she discussed how non-monogamy is often associated with lack – a lack of emotional exclusivity, intimacy but how this is not true in practice.

It is in these relationships that many people find acceptance, including Alex Hill, a MSC student in Anthropology and a member of Yorkshire O.P.E.N. Alex described her experiences of ‘coming out’ as poly to friends and family, concluding that “acceptance leads to support”. Alex wants to make polyamory more accepted and make it easier to come out as poly as a result.

Similarly, Dr Robin Bauer from The Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University assessed how poly has become an identity, and not just a practice. This change allows the development of the sense of community. Tara Elizabeth Brown from Wotever DIY Film Festival is aiming to set up a space for polyamorous people of colour.

It is clear that the popularity of this alternate lifestyle is growing, and the development of its culture creates spaces where people can find acceptance and community.

Yorkshire O.P.E.N. aims to provide these spaces. Rich Daley said: “That’s what Yorkshire O.P.E.N is for – to provide a safe space for everyone in or curious about ethical non-monogamous relationships to come and share their experiences and support each other. I needed it when I co-started it, and 4 years later it’s become clear that I was far from the only one who did!”

Dr Christian Klesse

Dr Christian Klesse

Dr Christian Klesse concluded the day encouraging the audience to consider the “how we value the different relationships that sustain us”, whatever form they come in.

Loving and being loved is a unique, liquid, and undefinable process, so forget the rules. Love is anything you want it to be.


Humanities in Public’s Sex strand continues with Myra Breckinridge: Sure Hard to Handle? on Friday 26th February. Tickets are free and available here.

Dr Jacqui Gabb will be speaking at Vanilla Shakes? on Wednesday 9th March. Tickets are free and available here.

Photo credit: Laisa Rodrigues

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