I distinctly remember the first time that I encountered the word “polyamory.” Like millions of other hopeless romantics, I was swiping away on Tinder one night in the summer of 2018 and looking for my next great love. I kept seeing this word strategically placed in bios ― usually paired or associated with “ethical non-monogamy.” I dismissed the concept out of hand. I just couldn’t imagine that it was possible to be in a committed relationship with more than one partner. These were people who just wanted the right to just sleep around with random partners without ever making a “real” commitment, right?
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Certainly, I have seen people who use it as an exercise in self-indulgence, but in a way that is similar to what I have observed among those who identify as monogamous. But also I have found that there are polyamorous folks currently in, or actively pursuing, ethical, loving and committed relationships.
Importantly, though, polyamorous culture is not the utopic space that some claim it to be. It is not outside of the world of mental health struggles, racism, and class and gender dynamics that pervade many people’s romantic pursuits. However, it does offer valuable ways of thinking about love and intimacy that need to be explored and critiqued so that the good stuff doesn’t get lost.
Despite my mind-opening introduction to polyamory, I continued to hold on to my misconceptions about this type of relationship until I met her — I’ll call her Lucia. She was gorgeous and blonde, with big green eyes that could make you do anything she wanted. You could tell that they were full of kindness, and a fiery spirit, but I could also tell that there was a deep well of pain. Early in the first date, she made it clear that she practiced ethical non-monogamy. Although I had my misgivings, I decided to explore the connection. I was going to give it a shot, as this was the best date I had been on in a while.
Where the other women I met seemed to be guarded, stuffy, and conservative, Lucia was flirty, fun, and open. I was immediately smitten, and it wasn’t long before we became inseparable. I admit I was scared to death. We were moving way too fast, but Lucia was a force of nature. Being with her was like being caught in an avalanche; you got swept up and went wherever she took you. Soon, she broke up with both of her partners (supposedly for reasons unrelated to our relationship), and our dynamic evolved into a pseudo-monogamous union.
None of it wast quite what I expected, but I was crazy about her, and I wanted to give it a real chance. Being in that kind of familiar relationship structure should have given me a measure of comfort, but I could never quite get there. I have never believed that I was jealous or possessive of my partners, but then again, I had never been in a relationship structure that challenged me in such ways. The spectre of her desire to take on another partner grimly hung over me. I felt as if I were being slowly strangled by the anxiety. Lucia’s unpredictable nature, which had excited me in the beginning, started to reveal itself as impulsivity. She scared the shit out of me, but I was much more afraid of leaving or taking on another partner.
Our relationship awakened insecurity in me that I believed was long gone, and other feelings began to arise that I didn’t even think existed. I feared that she would find someone more experienced in polyamory and come to the realization that they were better at it than I was. Plus, some other real differences existed between us.
For instance, although she possessed a certain level of maturity, she was still fifteen years my junior. While we grew to love each other very much, these generational obstacles proved to be formidable. Sometimes we just didn’t get one another’s humor. Additionally, our relationship was “interracial.” It is not as much of a taboo as it once was, but for many it is still an uncomfortable pairing. I could hang out with her and her friends, but eventually, things were done and discussed in that space to which I just couldn’t relate. I began to feel left out. They seemed to speak about and enjoy a world that I could never know. She may have felt the same way about my world, although she never mentioned it.
Importantly, despite her stated rejection of a racist upbringing, sometimes she said things that made me feel uncomfortable. She meant well, but it felt as if I was being fetishized by the woman I loved. If it had been anyone else, I would have checked them — and hard. Some might read this and be infuriated with me. They might ask, “How can you allow anyone to treat you like this?” I wish that I had an answer that would satisfy them. I can only put it like this: it just hits differently when it’s someone you are thinking of building a future with. Beyond me, I often wondered if she was doing the same thing with other POC: failing to check her privilege.
I would come to find that in the polyamory, kink, and BDSM communities, these kinds of microaggressions happen more than most would like to admit. I desperately wanted to hold onto my black humanity in the face of these daily exclusions — but also hold onto my sexual identity and community. However, we live in a world where black pride and dignity are often viewed as highly problematic and dangerous, which has resulted in attempts to extinguish it quickly and with great violence.
So I struggled with the question of how I could reconcile my black identity and still function within a paradigm that positions itself as more enlightened than monogamy, yet is also limited by the same racial, cultural, and social prejudices and biases. While I’m open to dating outside my race and culture, I observed that many of the same people who proudly describe themselves as anti-racist liberal allies aren’t as open. I quickly observed that they don’t know or associate with many black folks outside of totally paternalistic relationships. They “know” the old black dude hanging out outside of Hank’s Seafood, or the young hustler who is trying to get money every day to “catch the bus,” or the starving thirty-five-year-old rap artist who just can’t afford to make the rent this month. To those who self-assuredly hide behind the mask of liberal enlightenment, yet maintain contentment with their whiteness, this “knowing” is just the toleration of a native nuisance that they have to deal with, same as the mosquitoes and potholes. At worst, it mirrors the worst fears and misconceptions that their parents shared with them about black folk when they broke the news that they were moving to a place like New Orleans. And especially with the black person who has his shit together — college-educated, erudite, aware of their identity, and willing to engage — this presented real discomfort in some. I can’t tell you how many times I was asked more than once, “Do you really have two master’s degrees?” My defense mechanism of choice is humor — corny as it is. I couldn’t resist responding to the question one time, “Yup, and I speaks English real good too!”
What was equally frustrating to me was the attitude of some people of color within the lifestyle who gave me the impression that they actively chose to reject any trace of their cultural identity to fit into a space that is white-normative. They wanted nothing to do with other black people and sometimes went out of their way to disparage them. When I was a child, my mother used to warn me to be wary of ‘black folks who are willing to go out of their way to be the only black folks in the room.” As much as I experienced the distrustful white gaze, I also got the same thing from black brothers who didn’t see me as an ally, but as someone who was cutting in on their action. Thankfully, there were exceptions to this, and there were some good brothers and sisters with whom I could talk while trying to make sense of a lifestyle that was far removed from anything in our experience.
Overall, when considering the things that I was seeing, and the issues that I was having in my relationship, I wondered if I had made a huge mistake. How in the hell was I supposed to manage multiple relationships when I couldn’t even get this one right? Did I really want to continue having to be in the company of some people who didn’t seem to respect me as a human being? I could justify it because all the benefits that ethical non-monogamy does bring. Besides that, sometimes just being with Lucia was fun — until it wasn’t.
Loss and Gain
Ultimately, Lucia and I couldn’t overcome our differences and our relationship ended. I was heartbroken and completely lost. My worst fears were realized when she walked away from me. I truly grieved for the loss of the relationship, but after some time passed, and there was distance, I began to see that it just wasn’t healthy for me. I also reasoned that the problem was never polyamory, but our traumas and our responses to them. By the time it was over, I had gotten comfortable with the idea of her going out on dates and eventually, maybe I could as well. The idea of having my partners know one another and possibly be friends did appeal to me, although it’s not an exact science. In the end, perhaps she wasn’t the right person to introduce me to polyamory, but even still, I’m thankful for the gift. I’ve met some fantastic people, whom I cherish.
Being with her awakened something in me that I had to admit had always been there. I could be very monogamous, but I always felt that something was missing. I was always left wanting more, sexually. When I was single, I found that I enjoyed having many partners who fulfilled different needs. I loved being with these women and the emotional connections with them were very important to me. You could say that it was polyamory by another name, but others may just call it cheating. I’m not certainly proud of it, but these women never knew about one another. I try to be as honest as I possibly can, so I didn’t feel good about doing it. I admit that it was a shitty thing to do. I justified it by convincing myself that unless stated otherwise, they were probably dating others as well. Nevertheless, by not telling them the truth, I didn’t give them the information they needed to make an informed choice. It represented the height of selfishness and self-indulgence — I was a textbook hypocrite. On top of it all, I projected my negative thoughts and actions onto those who practice polyamory.
I also had to come to terms with another huge reason that I kept multiple partners: while I could love, I was afraid to be in love. I had suffered repeated abandonment traumas when it came to women. Being with different women allowed me to keep a safe emotional distance. Sexually and intellectually, I was being satisfied, but I was denying myself the emotional aspect. In the end, all it did was leave me empty, unfulfilled, and unhappy. But polyamory and other forms of ethical non-monogamy offered me a way to explore my emotional, intellectual, and sexual needs without being dishonest with my partners. I tasted the bitter wine of heartbreak, but also, I learned that I am capable of loving fully and of accepting love from a partner. The relationship structure allowed me to come in from out of the shadows and make a real commitment to forming real emotional and romantic connections. But also, I gained an entry into a tantalizing world that I’ve always been curious about — the world of kink and BDSM.
Exploring Kink/Play Parties
The face of polyamory, kink, and BDSM is usually associated with middle-class, upper-middle-class, and affluent circles. For a working-class adjunct professor like myself, much of the scene can be cost-prohibitive. But once I gained entry through my ex, I was able to run with a crowd that not only had the same relationship and sexual interests, but similar intellectual interests. Many of them were wonderful and truly practiced the spirit and intent of inclusiveness.
Unfortunately, though, there were times where I felt marginalized by my race and socioeconomic status. I’ve never quite figured it out — maybe it is a “superpower’’ resulting from living and surviving in a systemically racist society — but black folks seem to have a strong intuition that tells us when non-POC are uncomfortable around us. Sometimes the signs are subtle, and they are sometimes nakedly present. When it kicks in, it causes a distinct uneasiness and can make many emotions arise. An environment where people are in wildly varying stages of undress can become a very precarious place.
By now, I’ve been to quite a few play parties, and unless they are black and POC centered, too often there is an undercurrent of racial fetishization. There are white couples who actively seek black men for sex and reduce their fetish to those men’s sexual organs. Often the man is referred to as a ‘bull.” I was disappointed when I observed that precious few ever question the overt racial overtones of reducing a black man to a beast whose only purpose is to breed white women. There were times where the scene resembled the party/silent auction from Jordan Peele’s epic horror movie Get Out (2017). It seemed like every conversation with me centered on race and how racism is bad. After a while, I started using the same pat answer, ‘Yeah, I know.” I was often asked if I have lived here for most of my life, and then told that that must have been rough.
Funny, I did have a rough upbringing, but that’s not the point: it’s the assumption that I did that bothered me the most. It revealed their belief that since I was an African American then I must have a crime-ridden and impoverished background. In a circle that seemed to be populated by those who swing left of left, it was eye-opening. Indeed, in the bohemian and creative New Orleans neighborhood known as Bywater, I observed many BLACK LIVES MATTER flags and bumper stickers — but what I couldn’t seem to find were many black lives. For those like me, who did hang out, we were viewed with suspicion or curiosity — or just ignored. The play parties were just a microcosm of the larger community.
Some might read this and ask, “If you have had so many negative experiences, why should you continue to be a part of a community that isn’t inclusive?” It’s a fair question, I suppose. But if I do not point out the problem, if I remain silent, the problem will certainly never be solved. My intention in writing about my experience is to create a much-needed dialogue within polyamorous relationships and in communities around the country both large and small. Polyamory ideally fosters sexual autonomy, radical honesty, and more effective communication with partners. However, when it comes to issues of race, class, and culture, there needs to be even more radical honesty and communication. As people have become more aware of issues such as enthusiastic consent, gender, and sexual discrimination, it should begin to happen concerning race, class, and cultural inclusivity.Become a Patron!
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