From Homonormativity to Polynormativity: Online Popular Discourses about Polyamory

This paper will first explore the ways in which online discourses for and against the normalization of polyamory are modeled based on the struggle for gay marriage legalization and its opposition. Later, it will discuss the specific ways in which the normalization of polyamorous relationships and practitioners in contemporary popular culture works both to subvert and to reproduce specific norms in relation to gender, race, and sexual orientation.

Contemporary popular discourses around polyamorous relationships tend, in many cases, to construct them as a new, liberatory form of relationality. This trend is encouraged by some activists within the polyamorous community, which use it to promote, or even “sell” this image of polyamory to mainstream audiences, aiming toward legitimization and popularization of these practices and identities. These efforts are in many cases modeled based on the struggle to legitimize same- sex marriage. This is evident in the use of comparable narratives and justifications, the tendency to present more ‘normative’ and less threatening portrayals of polyamory, and in the rhetoric describing polyamory as a form of sexual identity. Following the perceived success of the struggle for same- sex marriage, many activists see the legalization of multiple partner marriage as the obvious next step for equal marriage legislation. Encouraged by the struggle’s success, normative representations of polyamory have gained further popularity and dominance.

In recent years, other speakers within the polyamorous community have begun criticizing the rhetorical efforts toward a normalization of polyamory. The term ‘polynormativity’ was presented in the blog Sex Geek in order to discuss a critical perspective on the struggles for normalization, suggesting that many popular representations of polyamory tend to present more normative and respectable image, which reiterate monogamist and heterosexual assumptions. These representations, they claim, work to form a standardization of acceptable, or ‘positive’ polyamory relationships and identities. Thus, the word ‘polynormativity’ serves as a variation of the idea of ‘homonormativity’, similarly criticizing a discursive preference toward certain privileged positions, and leading to the exclusion of others.

This paper will track and analyze the rhetoric used online to legitimize polyamory to mainstream audiences, as well as the rhetoric used to oppose or resist these efforts. Showing the ways in which both sides borrow heavily from the discourse surrounding the legalization of gay marriage, I will identify how the choice to shape the struggle for legitimation of polyamory based the guidelines of the struggle for same- sex marriage have helped shape a specific image of polyamorous relationships and individuals. I will later analyze the normative image of polyamory, focusing specifically on its relation to gender, race, and sexual identity. This analysis will be based on recently published online articles from mainstream publications (such as the Huffington Post and the New York Times) that presented polyamory ideas to a wide, mostly heterosexual and monogamous audience, as well as online writings, which present and debate the idea of ‘polynormatvity’ (such as the Sex Geek blog and the following online discussions). Through an examination of the common themes, which come up in these texts, I will examine the ways in which normative representations of polyamorous relationships and identities are constructed, and their connections to gender, race, and sexual orientation.

Until recently, research in queer studies has focused primarily on sexual practices and identities rather than on relationship forms. When this field has discussed non-mainstream relationship formations, more attention has been given to relationships between LGBTQ individuals. This paper aims to draw attention to the political importance and consequences of polyamory norms, expectations, and practices that are not necessarily understood as ‘queer,’ or even as subversive, but are still very much political. I claim that even when enacted in an otherwise heteronormative frame, the ways in which polyamory representations are portrayed work to subvert, question, and disassemble mainstream discourses about sexual identities. In this sense, new forms of consensual non- monogamy work to undermine the old divisions between heterosexuality and lesbian, homosexual, and bisexual identities. At the same time, these representations also work in multiple ways to strengthen and reinforce race and gender inequalities. Far from being one- dimensional, niche, or a peripheral phenomenon, polyamory is gaining mainstream attention and complexities. For these reasons, polyamory, and other forms of consensual non- monogamous relationships and identities, form one of the new, exciting horizons for queer studies.


Part of panel Poly Families, Cultural Representation, and the Law
October 2, 2016, 09:00–10:45