Jenny Yuen’s book Polyamorous: Living and Loving More approaches the subject of polyamory with an open-mind, extensive research, and the first-hand experience to back it all up. Troy Michael Bordun talks to the author about jealousy, internet communities, and trust.
I lived my young adulthood in downtown Toronto. It was the early to mid-2000s and I had friends with diverse backgrounds and interests across the city; yet, when it came to sex and romance, we only knew two possibilities: dating or promiscuity and (serial) monogamy. Then in 2006, the Oxford English Dictionary added the word “polyamory,” and its usage increased as the years went on. In 2017, for example, the fourth most popular Google search related to relationships was “What is a poly relationship?” and “What is an open relationship?” came in sixth. For many Canadians and Americans today, polyamory is simply part of our everyday lives.
In her first book, Polyamorous: Living and Loving More (2018, Dundurn Press), Toronto author and journalist Jenny Yuen shares the stories of dozens of polyamorous Canadians. According to a 2012 study, 4-5% of the country’s population, much like its neighbour to the South, is in some kind of consensual non-monogamous arrangement. Yuen provides the space for some of these folks to discuss their habits, preferences, and struggles. In a highly engaging style, the author articulates just how relevant alternatives to monogamy have become.
What initially struck me while reading Yuen’s book was the sheer quantity of responses from poly Canadians (I’ll follow the book’s usage of “poly” instead of “polyam” or “polya”). During my conversation with the author in October 2018, she mentioned that her own choice to pursue polyamory assisted her in generating so many productive interviews. Like Yuen herself, many are open to talking about their personal lives in the interest of normalizing alternatives to monogamy. Indeed, the first two chapters of the book exclusively detail Yuen’s discovery of and experiences with polyamory. The author also revealed that she offered her participants the opportunity to use just their first name or a pseudonym, because “not everyone has the privilege of being ‘out.’’’
Yuen is clear about the poly privilege. There isn’t a readily available poly starter kit but a few things do help people get going and maintain their partnerships, e.g., financial security, urban living, and a progressive family and community. Many polyamorists use their financial security in order to maintain multiple households, go to expensive kink events, plan a poly vacation with a poly travel agent (yes, this exists), or visit partners in faraway cites – flying across the country and staying in hotels isn’t cheap. Yet Yuen also describes how Facebook has been a vital tool for more local, community-oriented poly hangouts. Groups like Toronto Non-Monogamous BIPOC and Poly Role Models (Philadelphia) try to make events – and thus the lifestyle itself – more accessible. But as rewarding as an online community can be, it remains just that – it’s no substitute for meeting real people.
Further, although the urban lifestyle is preferable for the polyamorist (larger dating pool, bigger community, more events), Yuen ensures that her book highlights rural voices alongside urban ones.
Individuals in rural parts of the country can find ways to connect online and, if fate will allow it, arrangements can be made for a meeting. Amber, a woman who appears in Yuen’s book, was living on a remote island in British Columbia when she found the Vanpoly (Vancouver) group online. There, she met a man and, after a year or two, moved in with him, his wife, her boyfriend, and another housemate who became Amber’s boyfriend too. Now she splits her time between the island and the city. As Yuen writes, with the invention of the internet, “Polyamory suddenly became accessible with one click” for both rural and urban folks. Whether people want to learn more about it or find people to connect with, online access has proved invaluable.
But even with an internet connection, people like Cloud Edwards – a 28-year-old from Nelson, British Columbia (some 800 kilometers from Vancouver) – can still feel isolated. Edwards describes feeling rejected in his small town as most women didn’t want anything to do with a poly man and his poly wife. Polyamorous men often struggle, Yuen tells me, as men “may be the ones who instigate opening up their relationship (if they are in an existing one), but then may find their girlfriend/wife/partner finding their own partner(s) more easily and quickly. And that can lead to jealousy and other problems.” (Of course, this could happen to women in heterosexual relationships, or women and men in same-sex relationships, but Yuen finds that this pattern of struggling hetero men in poly relationships is relatively common.)
Indeed, navigating jealousy is, unsurprisingly, a considerable stumbling block for poly individuals. While Yuen only dedicates one chapter to the subject, navigating, negotiating, and overcoming jealous feelings is a thematic current that runs throughout her study. Rather than shame or condemn the negative feeling, Yuen grants her interviewees the opportunity to examine jealousy and describe ways they’ve been able to overcome it. The author indirectly offers relationship advice here: reading about all these poly folks, we learn that emotional epiphanies, working through it one day at a time, and poly counselling are just some of the options available for those who want to improve a relationship. On starting a poly life, Dr. Oren Amitay perhaps puts it best: “get ready to feel insecure and find ways to handle that.”
In addition to internal pressures within relationships, poly folks are also subjected to stigma and scrutiny from friends, family, co-workers, and the law. Yuen kindly offers her own experiences here. With a British husband, she wondered whether immigration officials would dig into her private life, and further, expressed her concern over whether she and her husband would “be persecuted” because they “chose to structure [their] relationship(s) differently than societal norms.” Yuen notes that her polycule (a romantic network of three or more individuals) consulted judges, criminal and family lawyers to ensure they weren’t breaking any laws, especially regarding the ambiguities around commitment ceremonies and “sanctioning events.” In a particularly insightful chapter, Yuen provides a history of polyamory and the law – an excellent resource for poly folks who want to know more about the risks involved when forming a polycule (in the end, the law doesn’t have too much to say about it or it doesn’t want to bother to enforce existing legislation – in short, polyamory isn’t criminal).
For the most part, Yuen says, those around her and her partners have been accepting of her lifestyle. However, Cory and Kendra from Whitehorse, Yukon, haven’t been so lucky. Yuen dedicates an entire chapter of the book to their story. “We [Kendra and I] had death threats,” Cory reveals. “Literally, I’ve had people tell me they were going to shoot me.” Eventually they fled the North, but these negative experiences hung over their lives like a dark cloud, and they suffered hardships (mental illness, geographical displacement) and consistent relationship problems (break-ups, trust issues).
Cory’s, Kendra’s, and other interviewees’ honesty make Polyamorous what it is: a true to life account of the diversity of sexual and romantic formations. Yuen doesn’t pull any punches, especially when it comes to women’s experiences in poly relationships. As Elisabeth Sheff points out in her 2006 study of poly men, polyamorous relationships still sometimes reproduce typical power relations and gender hierarchies. Yuen and her interviewees note poly trends such as unicorn hunting (a hetero couple searching for a bi-woman) and the one-penis-policy (hetero couple arrangement in which the woman can have other partners as long as they’re not male) as evidence of ongoing sexist behavior. Yuen tells me, “Women who identify as solo poly tend to feel a lot of pressure… because as the single woman coming into a triad, they can sometimes feel like it’s ‘two against one’ when couple privilege comes into play.” In the book, she provides the example of S.J, a woman often sought out as by couples asking her to be their unicorn. According to S.J., unicorn hunters often reproduce partner hierarchies and “ninety percent of the women were not even bi; they’re just trying to please their husbands.” Moreover, after hooking up with a couple, she was twice asked to babysit their children. This kind of treatment suggests that whoever doesn’t respect the monogamous institutions like marriage – in this case, S.J., who has chosen to remain childless – becomes expendable. Yuen concludes, “when everyone in a polycule isn’t treated with respect and honesty, then things go downhill pretty quickly.”
Yuen didn’t aim to write a poly guidebook, nor does she claim to be an expert. She is relatively new to the poly world, but has nevertheless provided an account that touches upon so many key themes and topics in poly communities. Tackling subjects like age, class, marginalized identities (the brief look at Indigenous polyamory is fascinating and important), and poly families, Yuen’s Polyamorous is a timely, necessary book for 2018 and for the future of poly people and relationships. The book’s strength lies in its ability to normalize the diversity of relationships and relationship philosophies.
I closed my interview with Yuen with an inquiry into the future of polyamory. She simply hopes for less stigma, and, in turn, greater acceptance. Yuen continues, “I think everyone should be able to choose who they love and how many they can love without fear of retribution, of losing their job or their children, and without a person invalidating their life choices. Hopefully, with more positive, less sensationalized media coverage, a willingness from poly communities to talk about ‘how it all works’ and dispelling misconceptions, people can better understand why others wish to practice it.” Polyamorous is a valuable step in that direction.
Troy Michael Bordun is a contract instructor in Communication Studies and Sociology at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, and Cultural Studies and Sociology at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. He has a forthcoming publication about a polyamory-themed film in the journal Mise-en-scène.