You’ve seen our profiles. We’re everywhere. We’re a meme. Okay, technically we’re a lot of memes. We use different words to describe what we do: ethical non-monogamy. Polyamory. Open marriage. Relationship anarchy. The meaning of all of these terms is the same: we are not out here looking for The One. We’re looking for The Many and The Maybe.
Much digital breath has been wasted on explaining what polyamory is, and there are great books written on the basics for anybody who wants to understand why monogamy doesn’t work for everybody. I’m not in the business of teaching Polyamory 101 to bright-eyed undergrads. What I want to talk about is how to do it well.
Many people use Tinder with the goal of moving toward short- or long-term monogamy. Professor Elison is here to explain how not to waste those folks’ time and instead use Tinder like a graduate of Ethical Non-Monogamy 201.
The most important thing I have learned is that non-monogamous people should put that fact in their bios. Don’t be coy; own your ethics. I’ve never saved that piece of information to spring on someone on the first date (or god forbid, the third date), but I have friends who have. It’s not the kind of thing that works well as a surprise. People you talk to romantically have a right to know where you stand. Be upfront, and let them decide whether they’re interested enough to move forward.
Next, I’ve learned to talk frankly about what exactly my arrangement is. Polyamory takes many different forms, and two people using the same word can mean totally different things. I tell people that I’m married, who I’m married to, and how long we’ve been married. I talk briefly about rules and safety protocols, so that they understand how seriously I mean what I say. There are plenty of folks whose policies might surprise you; lots of polyamorous bisexual women are married or partnered to someone with a “one-penis policy,” meaning that they can seek sex with other women, but not other men. Some couples operate under the rules of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” meaning they are free, but still secretive with one another.
On that subject: it’s important to know whether someone who is in an open relationship is open about it in their social circle. We sometimes borrow queer verbiage on this, asking if a person is “out” or not. I’m out everywhere. (Can you imagine if writing this was my big announcement the world?) But many polyamorous people are out to their friends and not their families. Some are out on Facebook but prefer not to go on dates somewhere they might be seen by someone in their meatspace social circles. All of this needs to be discussed, because it affects how I expect my date to behave and how they can expect me to behave. If I want someone to pretend we’re “just friends” if we run into my coworker at a bar, they deserve to know that upfront.
The best outcomes usually arise when dating other people in open relationships. I get a little thrill when I see a profile for someone I’m attracted to and then notice that their bio contains one of the telltale phrases that marks them as one of us. It means that my explanations will go down more easily and that I can expect a common ground of at least vocabularies if not rules. It’s hard dating monogamous people who choose to make an exception or are exploring the lifestyle for the first time. I find onboarding them deeply laborious, and most of the time, I don’t want to work that hard in my dating life.
The truth is I work hard enough already, because polyamorous people have to do a lot of talking about things that make some people uncomfortable. The most important responsibility for polyamorous people on Tinder is around sexual health. Those of us who have multiple partners bear a larger burden, and we have to open up (with clothes and lights still on) about STI status, birth control, and safer sex. I disclose the salient parts of my sexual history and ask frank questions. I take PreP, and I always protect myself. Every polyamorous person should be expected to do the same.
In ethical non-monogamy, the “ethical” part is just as important as the way-more-fun second part. Those ethics are rooted primarily in honesty; for me that means honesty with my partners, my community, and myself. In that spirit, I’m not going to lie to you: polyamorous people really do have more fun. We also just do a lot more work.