A Funny Thing Happened On My Way To The Polyamory Movie
This week, I attended Clarisse Thorn's Sex+++ Film Series at Hull House in Chicago. This feature was a film on polyamory, entitled: When Two Won't Do. The film is a documentary created by two people exploring polyamory for themselves. There was a discussion group afterward. The response to this film series has been overwhelming and Tuesday was no exception, with upwards of 70 people crammed into a room that expected maybe 40.
I do not practice "poly" and am largely ignorant of it. My initial brief exposure to the subject so far, was when my wife asked me what I thought about it. She attends a lot of Sc-Fi / Fantasy events and poly is well rooted in those communities. My initial reaction was panic! I thought my wife had met someone or that I was no good in bed or some tragedy...that centered around me. (Typical Aries male response, I must confess) Since then, I have had a great deal more adult and measured conversations with my wife. It turns out, she really wanted to only know my opinion on the topic and was inviting me into a real conversation. Oops.
Since those conversations, I have become an ally for communities that focus on Sex, Gender & Body (SGB) issues. I am launching a new blog to support SGB communities and individuals and poly is one of those communities. I am using that blog to highlight our shared humanity across SGB identities that differentiate one person from another. In order for me to fully appreciate the film and the discussion afterward, I needed to identify and suspend my prejudices and preconceptions.
My initial thoughts about poly were not kind. I thought that it was some scam that horny husbands talked their wives into doing, so they could get sex from strangers. It assumed that it was a manipulation. Or, I thought it might be some sort of contrived alternate lifestyle for people that have memorized the Klingon alphabet. These are really negative views and as I rode over to the Hull House, I thought back to all the people from my childhood that I may have picked up these judgments. Did I pick them up as an adult? Where from? There have been so many sexually inhibited, uptight judgmental adults around me since childhood, there is no telling where I got all my negative stereotypes from. As I cataloged all my impulsive forms of disapproval, I became acutely aware of how little I had thought these viewpoints out and how strong and extreme they were.
I thought to myself that this would be a perfect opportunity to make up my own mind on the matter of polyamory. So I entered the room in the frame of mind that I don't know jack and I would simply listen for the shared humanity between the filmmakers, the audience and myself.
The film itself was a pretty honest depiction of this couple's inquiry. The woman, Maureen wanted to love multiple men and sought out relationships with some. Her boyfriend David was not initially a fan, but wanted to be with her. They grabbed a camera and headed off on tours to Maureen's boyfriends, to a Swingers' Convention in Vegas, to a poly convention in Vermont or New Hampshire or something. The also visited some established poly families on the west coast. The film was low budget, but they did take a 'warts & all' approach to the content. They showed uncomfortable moments along with all the easy and reassuring ones.
In watching this film, I learned a great deal about Maureen & David's personal experiences with poly. I got the sense that it holds all things that a two person love holds: sex, intimacy, friendship, conflict, sadness, anger, anxiety, etc. Polyamory is no escape from any human emotion or dilemma. I can't say that even brings out more of those emotions and situations. However, it does spread those experience out across multiple faces and perhaps that is the appeal for some. I recommend watching this film, as I did if only for the opportunity to reach your own conclusions on something.
The discussion group afterward was even more rewarding than the film.
First off, Clarisse was an amazing facilitator. She kept track of people who wished to speak and made sure they got their opportunity with the precision of a symphonic conductor. I can honestly say that no conversation or discussion I've ever been part of was as thoughtful and attentive. Everyone there probably felt as I did, that she was there for them specifically. She sat at the front of the room, stroking her hair and noticing everything.
The discussion group consisted of people active in the poly community, swingers, gay, lesbian, straight, white, asian, black, hispanic - and one 48 y/o white guy whose wife wonders what she's got to do for him to listen to her. People asked all sorts of questions, made observations from inside and out of the poly community. I strongly urge anyone reading this to make their way to one of these film nights. Here are a few impressions that I was left with, in no particular order or relevance - save the last one.
One man who is active in poly for years pointed out a conflict in the film where a married, poly couple had two definitions of poly. The wife wanted many sexual partners and one love partner, while her husband wanted many love partners. This brought them much conflict.
One woman talked about how she spent years figuring out how to meet poly's without going to Sci-Fi & Fantasy conventions. She's into sports & mainstream social activities where poly is not common.
One man stated that poly forces people to become skillful in expressing their feelings and thoughts. With the constant change of partners in poly, an argument does not have days, weeks or years to get resolved. Partners change and the current raptures and crises will be replaced by new ones. And so on, and so on...
One man kept asking about constricting demands from partners while engaging in polyamory. He kept asking the same question and it seemed to me that he might have an issue with being told what to do. This conversation did lead to several people describing what poly is to them, which ultimately got us to the point that poly is different for each and every person that practices it. If someone is going to engage in polyamory successfully, he/she must articulate what poly means to them. Then, they must communicate that to everyone they are involved with. My takeaway from the discussion he started is similar to a lesson my daughter recently learned. Namely: "nobody is the boss of you, but if you are not meeting their needs, they may not choose to play with you".
The filmmakers did not like swinging and that led to an enlightening conversation among the group about the differences between swinging and polyamory. There are some extreme examples of either, but to my perspective there seemed to be a lot of middle ground that both terms seemed to describe. My take is that people engaging in poly or swinging are going to define themselves in terms that are unique to them, and that the term poly or swinging will mean something different to everyone.
Others simply shared their definition of some aspect of poly as they live it. One man offered his view in a sort of reductionist philosophy that I liked listening to. He suggested that people engaged in dating multiple partners at a time, are engaged in a 'street poly'.
Finally, the last speaker was a woman who described how she had been living a poly life for years before the term even came around. The way she described the community is like it was the most natural thing in the world for her. It was not about her choosing poly, it was about poly giving a name and shared language to whom she already was. I saw, in her declaration that Polyamory is not always a chosen lifestyle, but is also a natural expression of self - for some.
So, after watching the film and listening to the discussion group, I came to my own personal judgment of Polyamory. It is not bad, not good, not better and not worse. Poly is just more, and for some that is the right thing.
pro-SEX, pro-QUEER, pro-KINK
a free documentary film series for people who like sex
curated by Clarisse Thorn
+ Q. “What is being sex-positive?”
+ A. “Defining sex on my terms.”
+ A. “Understanding my sexual needs.”
+ A. “Being in charge of my sexual experiences.”
Cross-posted at The National Gadfly