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Polyamory Is Deviant – But Not for the Reasons You May Think

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This article identifies types of consensual non-monogamies (CNM) and contrasts them with cheating. When people realize that some people negotiate multiple partner relationships and monogamy is not the only option, they have encountered the polyamorous possibility and might have one of three common reactions. These reactions are embedded in a culture shaped by compulsory monogamy, within which CNM does not fit. Under the relational panopticism of compulsory monogamy, conventional society attributes significant stigma to polyamorous relationships. Two of the ostensible reasons for this attribution of deviance include the fact that polyamorous people have sex for pleasure and maintain multiple partners. Because these are common in other relationships as well, these apparent reasons are not the actual reasons for the stigma and deviance. Rather, there are at least three real reasons for this deviance assigned to polyamory, including honesty, women negotiating access to multiple partners, and the challenge it poses to heterosexual nuclear families.
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Deviant Behavior
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Polyamory Is Deviant – But Not for the Reasons
You May Think
Elisabeth Sheff
To cite this article: Elisabeth Sheff (2020) Polyamory Is Deviant – But Not for the Reasons You
May Think, Deviant Behavior, 41:7, 882-892, DOI: 10.1080/01639625.2020.1737353
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Published online: 12 Mar 2020.
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Polyamory Is Deviant But Not for the Reasons You May Think
Elisabeth Sheff
Sheff Consulting, Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA
This article identifies types of consensual non-monogamies (CNM) and
contrasts them with cheating. When people realize that some people
negotiate multiple partner relationships and monogamy is not the only
option, they have encountered the polyamorous possibility and might have
one of three common reactions. These reactions are embedded in a culture
shaped by compulsory monogamy, within which CNM does not fit. Under
the relational panopticism of compulsory monogamy, conventional society
attributes significant stigma to polyamorous relationships. Two of the
ostensible reasons for this attribution of deviance include the fact that
polyamorous people have sex for pleasure and maintain multiple partners.
Because these are common in other relationships as well, these apparent
reasons are not the actual reasons for the stigma and deviance. Rather,
there are at least three real reasons for this deviance assigned to polyamory,
including honesty, women negotiating access to multiple partners, and the
challenge it poses to heterosexual nuclear families.
Received 29 October 2018
Accepted 18 May 2019
Polyamory is a form of consensual non-monogamy (CNM), a category of relationships in which the
participants negotiate multiple sexual and/or romantic partners. The broadest category of CNM is
the open relationship, which gives little information about the specifics of the structure beyond the
fact that the participants have agreed on non-monogamy. Some people consider their relationships
open and identify with other categories of CNM as well. Polyamory is a form of CNM that
emphasizes emotional intimacy among multiple partners. It differs from polygamy in several ways,
most notably that polygamy is a form of marriage with multiple spouses frequently embedded within
a religious community (Zeitzen 2008). The most common form of polygamy (both cross-culturally
and historically) is polygyny in which one husband is allowed multiple wives, but wives are not
allowed to have multiple husbands (Zeitzen 2008).
In contrast, many polyamorists are neither
married nor rooted in a religious structure that advocates polyamory. People of all genders are
allowed multiple partners in polyamory, not only men. Polyamory also differs from swinging,
another form of CNM that emphasizes heterosexual couples swapping partners for sexual novelty
or having group sex, usually in a semi-structured setting like a house party, sex club, cruise, or resort
(Gould 2000). Both less structured and less heterosexual than swinging, polyamory is also not as well
known among the general public.
All of these forms of CNM share the crucial characteristic of negotiating access to multiple lovers,
distinguishing CNM from infidelity (also known as cheating or adultery) which is not negotiated,
but rather conducted in secret without the other partners consent. McAnulty and Brineman (2007)
define infidelity in dating as “… almost any form of emotional or sexual intimacy with a person
other than ones primary dating partner (94),a definition that could be extended to marital
infidelity as well. It is most instructive that McAnulty and Brineman do not add nonconsensual to
CONTACT Elisabeth Sheff 2007 Wilson St, Chattanooga, TN 37406
Polyandry, marriage between one wife and multiple husbands, is comparatively rare and most common when there is limited
land, the population is geographically isolated, or there is a significant imbalance in the population; see Zeitzen, 2008.
© 2020 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
2020, VOL. 41, NO. 7, 882892
their definition, implying that all extradyadic emotional and sexual intimacy is definitionally non-
consensual. This assumption that monogamy is the default and only legitimate form of relationship
is termed compulsory monogamy (Emens 2004; Heckert 2010; Ritchie and Barker 2006), an idea we
explore in greater depth shortly.
This article focuses on polyamory and the ways in which it is deviant and some of the reasons
explaining that deviance. First, it explains the polyamorous possibility, three common reactions, and
the culture of compulsory monogamy in which these reactions are performed. Next, this article
identifies the obvious reasons for polyamorys deviance and demonstrates why those reasons are
false. Then, it identifies the real reasons that polyamory is deviant, and what that means for
compulsory monogamy when confronted with the polyamorous possibility.
The polyamorous possibility
Coming to the realization that there is an option to have openly conducted non-monogamous
relationships is what Sheff (2013) calls the polyamorous possibility. Once people become aware that
there are alternatives to both monogamy and cheating, they have grasped the polyamorous possi-
bility, and can never unthink it again. They may reject the idea or decide to explore it further, but the
potential for themselves or their partner to initiate discussion of a consensually non-monogamous
relationship exists in a way it had not before they became aware of CNM as a social option. Sheff
(2013) has found that three common reactions follow realization of the polyamorous possibility:
People are generally either blasé, delighted, or terrified.
The polyamorous possibility is banal for some people who are blasé about it they become aware
of it and it makes little impression on them. People in this category tend to dismiss the polyamorous
possibility as an odditythey would not consider, like getting a facial tattoo or joining a cult. Others
are already practicing polyamory and glad to have a name for it, but the realization is not earth
shattering because they have already engaged in a CNM relationship. For others, however, the
polyamorous possibility is mind-blowing, and their strong reactions usually express in one of two
ways (Sheff 2013).
The first of the strong reactions is delight. Some people experience feelings of freedom and relief
when they become aware of the polyamorous possibility. For members of this category, realizing the
polyamorous possibility can be like taking a deep breath for the first time in their lives. Finally, free
of compulsory monogamy, the possibility of having multiple lovers honestly and transparently can
feel liberating for those in this category. Becoming openly polyamorous can alleviate the burdens of
lying and cheating, and offers people who have caused pain and suffered themselves as failed
monogamists/cheaters the opportunity to construct an alternative relational paradigm.
A second strong reaction some people have to the polyamorous possibility is abject terror.
Realizing that CNM is an option can feel extremely threatening for people in this category, especially
if their partner has ever given any indication that they might want to have an open relationship.
Several issues can contribute to a fearful response, such as being monogamous by orientation or
having personal or familial experience with cheating or adultery. In the same way that some people
say polyamory is a sexual or relational orientation for them, others report that they are innately or
inherently monogamous (Emens 2004; Sheff 2013; Tweedy 2011). Those who are monogamous by
orientation say that they do not feel attraction for others when they are in love with someone. For
monogamists, the possibility that their partner might love someone else can feel like their beloved no
longer loves them.
For others, unresolved issues with cheating make the idea of consensual non-monogamies
untenable. This fear can be especially potent for those whose partners have cheated on them in
the past, worry that their partner may cheat on them now or in the future, or feel guilt for their own
past or current cheating. Others have parents who cheated on each other and are wary of non-
monogamy because of the mistrust and deception they observed in their families of origin. Becoming
conscious of the potential for open relationships and knowing CNM might spread to their social
circle can make some people with unresolved issues around infidelity profoundly uncomfortable. For
these and other reasons, realizing the polyamorous possibility can also mean attaching significant
deviance and stigma to the relationship style at least for the folks in the second strong reaction
category. The next section explores the ostensible reasons for the deviance and stigma associated
with polyamory.
Compulsory monogamy
These varied reactions to the polyamorous possibility occur within a society structured by compul-
sory monogamy, which is the coercive and (mostly) invisible idea that monogamy is the sole
legitimate form of relationship in which everyone is required to engage. Patterned after Richs
(1980) idea of compulsory heterosexuality, compulsory monogamy is the mandate for solely dyadic
romantic relationships embedded in social norms, customs, and institutions (Emens 2004; Heckert
2010; Ritchie and Barker 2006).
In a foundational discussion of compulsory monogamy Emens (2004: 7) detailed monogamys
mandate,explaining the persistent popularity of marriage founded in the fantasy of Western
Romance tradition and laws such as criminal statutes related to adultery or bigamy that function
as a coercive enforcement of monogamy.Important features of compulsory monogamy include the
importance of jealousy as evidence of true love, the fantasy of supermonogamy in which there is only
one person who is the perfect soulmate and complete complement of the other, sociobiological
explanations of exclusive heterosexual mating as the superior evolutionary strategy, and that cheat-
ing especially for men is embedded as a requisite component of compulsory monogamy (Emens
2004). In other words, compulsory monogamy requires that the idea and resultant image of
monogamy be maintained, not the actual conduct of sexual and emotional fidelity.
Scholars find evidence of compulsory monogamy in language that excludes the possibility of non-
monogamy being consensual (Ritchie and Barker 2006), relationship structures that inhibit and
restrict autonomy and self-awareness (Heckert 2010), and a sexist double standard that impacts
women more than men (Willey 2015). Enforced via legal prosecutions (Emens 2004) and relational
panopticism in the culture at large (Willis 2019), compulsory monogamy affects people in CNM
relationships in interactions with their personal networks and social institutions. Compulsory
monogamy frames the social world in which polyamory and other forms of CNM are deemed
deviant. The next section explores the ostensible reasons for that deviance.
The obvious reasons
A Puritanical society at root (Weber 2013/1905), mainstream culture in the United States has never
been comfortable with non-monogamy (Coontz 2006; Jacobson and Burton 2011). That discomfort
has not, however, translated into an absence of non-monogamous relationships, both consensual and
non-consensual. Marital infidelity is common worldwide, with an average of 21% of wives and 31%
of husbands internationally reporting extramarital sexual fulfillment(Dillon, Nowak, and Weisfeld
2017). Rates of marital infidelity are rising in the United States (Fincham and May 2017), with
wealthy people (mostly men) seeking partners online using sites such as Ashley Madison to find
clandestine partners (Chohaney and Panozzo 2018), Facebook facilitating infidelity among new and
former partners (Abbasi and Alghamdi 2017), and erectile dysfunction drugs enabling extramarital
sex (Fincham and May 2017). Infidelity remains a leading cause of divorce in the United States
(Yuan and Weiser 2019). Cheating in dating and cohabitational relationships is even more common
than among married people (Fincham and May 2017).
In addition to widespread infidelity, consensual non-monogamies are both currently popular and
have a long history in the United States. Swinging began in the United States among military spouses
and has spread to many other subcultures (Gould 2000). Polygamists have resided in the US since its
inception, and contemporary polygamous sub-cultures include Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints
884 E. SHEFF
and Muslims (Bennion and Joffe 2016). Non-monogamous communities and group marriages have
had three waves of popularity in the United States, beginning with the nineteenth-century trans-
cendentalists, through the free love movement of the 1960s and 70s, to the current Internet-fueled
expansion of CNM (Sheff 2012).
Polyamory as a specific form of CNM began in the 1970s (Sheff 2012) and has grown in
popularity dramatically in the last 10 years (Moors 2017). Because most people learn about poly-
amory online or through a reality television series like Married and Dating on HBO, the general
public has a salacious and negative view of polyamory (Conley et al. 2013a; Ferrer 2018). Reality
television is notorious for its hypersexualized focus, and when it comes to portraying sex and gender
minorities that existing tendency is magnified dramatically (Gamson 1998). Furthermore, many
polyamorous people are at least somewhat closeted, because stigma and discrimination have had
demonstrably devastating effects on other polyamorous people, and community wisdom suggests
caution when considering coming out (Sheff 2013).
As a result, many members of the general public might know someone in a consensually non-
monogamous relationship but are probably unaware that they know a polyamorous person because
that person is closeted. Without personal connection and conversations about the reality of con-
sensual non-monogamies, mainstream society is free to sustain prejudicial misconceptions about
polyamory and other forms of CNM (Conley et al. 2013a; Ferrer 2018; Grunt-Mejer and Campbell
2016; Moors et al. 2013). These misconceptions tend to be in two primary areas: having sex for
pleasure and having multiple partners.
Sex for pleasure
Part of traditional monogamy especially for women was completely refraining from sexual
intercourse prior to marriage, and then refraining from sex with anyone besides the spouse post-
nuptially (Coontz 2006). This tradition arises from Christian religious attitudes that sex is for
procreation, not pleasure (Seidman 1990). Having sex for pleasure or recreation is immoral
according to many Christian religious traditions (Fuchs 1983). Evidence indicates that polyamorists
and people in other types of CNM relationships clearly have sex for pleasure: they often use
condoms and other barriers for protection against sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy,
some seek sexual novelty among multiple partners, and others engage in an expansive range of
sexual interactions including kinky sex/BDSM, group sex, and sacred sexualities (Sheff 2013).
The reality is, people in ostensibly monogamous relationships have sex for pleasure and recreation as
well. Many people use birth control to have sex without becoming pregnant (Watkins 2012)the essence
of sex for pleasure and recreation. Hookup culture is both well documented (Aubrey and Smith 2016;
Beste 2017) and not confined to college (Garcia et al. 2012). Consumption of pornography has driven
Internet technologies and communications, fostering not only hundreds of thousands of websites but
also the equipment to provide video and sound (Müller, Opwis, and Mekler 2018; Smith 2017).
Smartphone apps from Grindr and Tinder to BlackPeopleMeet and SilverSingles assist users in finding
new people to date and/or engage in sex. Sex-toy and erotica stores sell merchandise designed to
stimulate and enliven sex for couples far beyond what is required for procreation, and lingerie sales
from stores like Victorias Secret indicate that people are dressing up for recreational sex. Advertising
relies so heavily on allusions to sexual pleasure that it can be difficult to discern precisely what
commodity the commercial is actually advertising (Lull and Bushman 2015). Because this phenomenon
is not confined to polyamorous people but is, in fact, widespread, sex for pleasure cannot be the real
reason for the deviance and stigma.
Multiple partners
Traditional monogamy was a practice in which very young women and men married as virgins and
were each-otherssole partner for life, becoming celibate when the other died (Fisher 1989).
Traditional monogamy was most popular when life-spans were shorter and transportation much
slower (Coontz 2006). It was much easier to be truly monogamous when most of the people were
dead by 40 years old and only met 300 others in their entire lives a significant portion of whom
were already relatives of some sort (Ryan and Jethá 2010). Because traditional monogamy does not
currently function for large portions of the population, compulsory monogamy has fostered the
practice of serial monogamy in which each person has one partner at a time, breaks up, and re-
partners with one other person, repeatedly until permanent partnership is established or death. In
practice, the prevalence of serial monogamy means that almost everyone in the US today has
multiple partners, just not concurrently (Mulder 2009).
Or at least not concurrently in theory. In practice, cheating, infidelity, and adultery are incredibly
common, with conservative estimates indicating 2% to 4% of married people cheat on their spouses
each year and at least 25% of married people engaging in infidelity across their duration (Fincham
and May 2017). Rates of cheating are probably even greater among unmarried committed partners.
Even people who have trumpeted family values like heterosexuality, monogamy, and marriage have
been caught very publicly failing to live up to what they espouse. As a lobbyist for the conservative
Christian Family Research Council, Josh Duggar (eldest child on the reality television show 19 Kids
and Counting) espoused heterosexual monogamous marriage as the only legitimate basis of family.
During his high-profile political maneuvering against same-sex families, media reports documented
Duggars repeated molestation of his younger sisters and a family friend when he was an adolescent
(InTouch 2015). In 2015 a data breach at Ashley Madison a website dedicated to pairing married
people who want to have clandestine affairs with other married people looking for affairs exposed
customers' names, and Josh Duggar was among them (InTouch 2015). While Duggar is among the
most recent, he is certainly not the only man who has spent years publicly agitating for heterosexual
monogamy and then been exposed as unable or unwilling to live up to the standards he proposed to
judge everyone else. Political figures like Newt Gingrich (Brattebo 2013) and Donald Trump
(Darweesh and Abdullah 2016) have faced public disapproval for their hypocrisy around demanding
monogamous heterosexual marriage from others but cheating on their own spouses.
Not only is cheating incredibly common, but monogamy is not the only option for relationship
structure, nor even the most enduring. Historically and currently, polygamy is quite common
(Fenske 2015; Gordon 2003). In virtually every society of which anthropologists and sociologists
are aware, men (and especially wealthy or elite men) have been able to access multiple female
partners, either as wives, concubines, courtesans, mistresses, or prostitutes (Zeitzen 2008). While
monogamy began with men intending to pass their accumulated goods to their biological sons and
gained popularity with the spread of Christianity (Coontz 2006; Ryan and Jethá 2010), it has never
fully eclipsed polygamy.
Finally, consensual non-monogamy itself is far more common than is widely acknowledged.
Interest in polyamory and open relationships (two types of CNM) has increased dramatically,
especially over the past 1015 years (Moors 2017). Research indicates that more than one in five
(22%) Americans have engaged in a consensually non-monogamous relationship at some point in
their life (Haupert et al. 2017). Approximately 5% of people in the United States are currently
engaged in a CNM relationship, which is roughly the size of the lesbian, gay, and bisexual commu-
nity combined (Rubin et al. 2014). Given the popularity of serial monogamy, cheating, polygamy,
and consensual non-monogamies, it is simply normative to have multiple partners so that cannot
be the actual reason that polyamory is deviant.
The real reasons
If sex for pleasure and multiple partners are both commonplace, why does the mainstream find
polyamory and other forms of CNM so deeply disturbing (Conley et al. 2013a)? What are the real
reasons behind the deviance and social stigma? Now that we have identified and debunked the
ostensible reasons for the stigma associated with polyamory, we explore the true reasons underlying
886 E. SHEFF
the significant social discomfort associated with this relationship style (Conley et al. 2013b). These
reasons include honesty, women gaining access to multiple partners, and the challenge CNM poses
to conventional heterosexual nuclear families.
Honesty restructures power imbalance
Facebook, OK Cupid, eHarmony,, Grndr, Tinder, and a host of other dating websites
and apps have made finding a mate or multiple mates far more convenient than ever before.
These sites facilitate truly monogamous relationships, as well as cheating (Abbasi and Alghamdi
2017; Chohaney and Panozzo 2018). Non-consensual non-monogamy like cheating and adultery are
predicated on a power imbalance in which one person thinks they are in a monogamous relationship
with another who has agreed to monogamy but does not actually practice it (Allen & Atkins 2005;
Williams 2011). In some cheating relationships, the person who is cheating knows more of the reality
of the relationship than the person who is being monogamous and thinks they are in a truly
monogamous relationship (Allen & Atkins 2005). Knowledge, as Foucault (1982) so elegantly
demonstrated, is deeply intertwined with power, and having more knowledge about the relationship
confers power on the cheater. Even in relationships in which both people are cheating, the clandes-
tine nature of the adultery makes it not only more socially palatable to the larger mainstream
community but confers power on whomever is the most secretive (Allen & Atkins 2005; Williams
Alternately, when there is a significant power imbalance in a relationship, the more powerful
partner might cheat without regard to secrecy (Lammers et al. 2011). The partner with less power
might pretend to be oblivious to the affair or may acknowledge it and be unable to affect it.
Remaining in relationship with a cheating partner might be preferable to potential loss of status,
poverty, and/or homelessness (Utley 2011). Regardless of the impetus or expression, cheating is part
of compulsory monogamy, providing an outlet for either maintenance of the original relationship by
allowing clandestine sexual novelty with new lovers, or a way to audition possible future partners to
replace the current partner (Willey 2015). In this manner, cheating and hiding multiple partners
actually serves to reinforce and stabilize a monogamous system (Heckert 2010; Willey 2013).
By honestly negotiating consensual non-monogamy, polyamory brings multiple partnerships into the
open. In a society structured by compulsory monogamy and the attendant practice of non-consensual
non-monogamy (cheating), it is an act of resistance to negotiate non-monogamy (Willis 2019). When
some people begin to negotiate non-monogamies, it indicates to others that there are more choices than
simply monogamy (Sheff 2013). This honest discussion of multiple partners thus destabilizes the care-
fully balanced world of cheating that endows the partner with multiple relationships with greater power
than the truly monogamous partner. By allowing negotiation and open discussion, CNM overturns the
expectations that either everyone is monogamous or that cheating is inevitable and the only method to
attain sexual variety (Heckert 2010;Sheff2013;Willey2015).
This is not to say that there is never power inequity in CNM relationships like every other
relationship, gender, race, class, ability, and other factors shape access to social power (Sheff 2013;
Sheff and Hammers 2011). Perhaps even most important for CNM relationships, personal charisma,
and emotional tenor can profoundly affect the power balance of a relationship. The person with the
ability to attract multiple partners and the social acumen to continue relating to these partners for
years has more options and more social cache among polyamorists (Sheff 2005,2013). CNM and
polyamory may have other forms of power imbalance, but secrecy is generally not one of them (Sheff
2013; Sheff and Hammers 2011).
The ability to openly discuss relationships means that people can negotiate things like money,
time, and safer sex agreements. In fact, CNM relationships have significantly greater sexual health
precisely because they can be honest about the need for condoms and other barriers (Conley et al.
2013a). Polyamorous relationships also have higher levels of satisfaction than those who have been
cheated on, and those in monogamous, swinging, or open relationships (Conley et al. 2013b). Power
imbalances remain, but rejecting such a hallowed social convention as monogamy means that
polyamorists and others in CNM relationships are freer to question other things as well (Ritchie
and Barker 2006; Sheff 2005,2013).
Women get multiple partners too
Monogamy has always had sufficient flexibility to accommodate multiple partners for men. In
every society we can identify, wealthy men have had access to multiple women. From prostitutes and
courtesans to mistresses and multiple wives, men with high status have never truly been confined to
the practice of monogamy. Non-monogamous or promiscuouswomen have been occasionally able
to carve out small arenas of influence, generally under the patronage of powerful men. Courtesans
(Faraone and McClure 2008) and Geisha (Downer 2002) both were highly educated in not only
lovemaking but also art, politics, music, and social graces. These women have not, however, generally
been able to marry multiple younger men or rise to positions of political leadership (Downer 2002;
Faraone and McClure 2008). They were necessary to maintain a polite society, but never truly
accepted within it.
Far more frequently, however, non-monogamous women have been branded (sometimes literally)
as whores, slandered as sluts, ostracized, deemed mentally ill, and/or imprisoned (Edwards et al.
2011; Foucault 1982). Sexual double standards are popular and virulent in the United States
(Emmerink et al. 2017), even among young people shaped by successive waves of sexual revolutions
(Bell and Bell 2013). Birth control is commonplace now, we realize that gay people really are
everywhere, oral sex has become so mundane we are not even sure it is truly sex (at least if it is
women doing it to men), and many other attitudes toward sexuality have changed significantly in the
past 50 years (Bullough and Bullough 2019; Twenge, Sherman, and Wells 2015). Sexual double-
standards, however, remain deeply embedded in contemporary attitudes toward women (Emmerink
et al. 2017; Farvid, Braun, and Rowney 2017; Fjær, Pedersen, and Sandberg 2015).
One of the most deviant aspects of polyamory is that it sanctions multiple sexual partners for all
genders, including women. In fact, women tend to have great social power within mainstream
polyamorous communities in the United States (Sheff 2005,2013). Most of the community leaders
and many of the academics studying polyamory are women. Researchers have noted the complex
nature of gendered interactions among polyamorists and how womens access to honest negotiation
grants them greater control over their sexual health (Conley et al. 2013b) and even increased
personal power (Ritchie and Barker 2006; Sheff 2005,2013). Furthermore, the kinds of men who
are willing to choose polyamory as opposed to cheating or polygynyare more likely to endorse
(and even attempt to practice) gender equality than are men who are unable or unwilling to share
theirwoman (Sheff 2006; Toft and Yip 2018).
Challenge to heterosexual nuclear families
Compulsory monogamy serves to support a narrow definition of family and relationship legitimacy
(Emens 2004;Rothschild 2018), and CNM encourages those who realize the polyamorous possibility
to become aware of and perhaps even consider alternatives (Sheff 2013). A real reason polyamory
and other forms of CNM are so deeply disturbing for conventional society is the challenge they pose
to a monolithic conception of family, love, and relationships (Sheff 2011). For people who find the
polyamorous possibility terrifying, the challenges accompanying the expansion of family and rela-
tionship options seem threatening (Conley et al. 2013b; Ferrer 2018; Grunt-Mejer and Campbell
2016; Moors et al. 2013). Beyond the personal issues around infidelity that tend to contribute to fear
of the polyamorous possibility (Sheff 2013), two larger social factors also shape negative reactions:
sex negativity and the potential for universal appeal.
Sex negativity is the general attitude of fear and suspicion that surrounds anything to do with
sexuality and those who relish it (McFarland and Williams 2016; Rubin 1984). It is the disdain that
888 E. SHEFF
gives words like slut or whore their punch (Tanenbaum 2015), and ensures that sexuality is always
seen as dirty, marginal, or offensive (Foucault 1982; Manning 2015; Rubin 1984). In mainstream
society, the impacts of sex negativity are evident in many ways, from the lack of realistic sex
education (Santelli et al. 2017) to the sluggish governmental response to HIV/AIDS during the
1980s (Herek and Capitanio 1999). In a polyamorous context, sex negativity often expresses as
disdain for people with high enough sex drives to have multiple partners (Sheff 2005,2013).
Possibly most disturbing for people who react negatively to the polyamorous possibility is its
potentially universal appeal. Among forms of sexual or relational nonconformity, polyamory is
unusual in that it could possibly be appealing to everyone who desires intimate relationships with
other people. Most people are heterosexual, and it is readily apparent that not everyone experiences
same-sex sexual attraction or desire (Dean 2014). In other words, not everyone has the capacity or
desire to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Unless they are monogamous by orientation (Tweedy 2010),
however, most people in long-term relationships regardless of sexual orientation have had the
experience of being attracted to someone else besides their partner (Clement 2002). Almost everyone
has the potential to be polyamorous in a way that many people do not have that same potential to be
gay. This near-universality of possible appeal can make polyamory seem especially menacing.
This article began by identifying types of consensual non-monogamies and contrasting CNM with
cheating. Then, it described the polyamorous possibility and the three common reactions people can
have when they realize that monogamy is not the only option within a society structured by
compulsory monogamy. Next, it identified the ostensible reasons for the deviance attributed to
polyamory, including sex for pleasure and having multiple partners, and explained why those were
not the real reasons for the deviance. This article then identified three real reasons for this
deviance: 1) honesty, 2) women negotiating access to multiple partners, and 3) the challenge
CNM poses to heterosexual nuclear families.
Ultimately, perhaps the critical social reason polyamory is so deviant is that it exposes the
weaknesses of compulsory monogamy and the heterosexual nuclear family. Compulsory monogamy
demands that the precarious and fragile nature of monogamy remain invisible, and seeks to limit
both the ability to imagine an alternative (Heckert 2010; Ritchie and Barker 2006; Willey 2013), and
the material lives of those who do (Emens 2004). Deeply entwined with compulsory heterosexuality
and the binary gender system (Connell 2005; Klesse 2010; Rich 1980) that underlies contemporary
conceptions of heterosexual nuclear families (Coontz 2006), compulsory monogamy is in the process
of being dethroned as the cultural standard by a wide range of relationship possibilities. After almost
a century of dominance (Coontz 2006), the heterosexual nuclear family is in danger of losing its
cultural preeminence. As the polyamorous possibility becomes even more widely known, it will
inevitably exert an even greater influence on society. Emens (2004) foresaw this over a decade ago
when she argued that a key reason for the opposition to polyamory is, somewhat paradoxically, the
pervasive or potential failure of monogamy (5).Sheff (2011) concluded that In the highly unlikely
event that same-sex and poly marriage actually do obliterate monogamous, heterosexual marriage
it will result from the inadequacies of that traditionalfamily form, not the wickednessof lesbigays
and polyamorists (513).
Casting polyamory and other forms of CNM as deviant is part of the demise of the heteropa-
triarchy, compulsory monogamy, and the decline of the heterosexual nuclear family. It is precisely
the ubiquitous nature of the polyamorous possibility that makes those who select it so deviant:
Anyone could choose it, but some of those who prefer monogamy do not want their own partners or
anyone else to be able to choose polyamory. The polyamorous possibility is deviant precisely because
it could be tempting for such a wide range of people, and some of those who refuse to allow
themselves to give in to the temptation also wish to prevent others from seeing it as an option. The
polyamorous possibility is cast as deviant because it highlights the weaknesses of the heterosexual
nuclear family and compulsory monogamy.
Notes on contributor
Dr. Elisabeth Sheff is a researcher, expert witness, coach, speaker, and educational consultant. With a PhD in Sociology
(University of Colorado, Boulder, 2005) and certification as a Sexuality Educator from the AASECT (the American
Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, 2012), Dr. Sheff specializes in gender and sexual
minority families, consensual non-monogamy, and kink/BDSM. Sheff is the foremost academic expert on polyamor-
ous families with children, and her 25-year Polyamorous Family Study is the only longitudinal study of poly families
with children to date. Currently lecturing at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, Sheff has also taught at the
University of Colorado, the University of Montana, Georgia State University, Oglethorpe, Emory, and the University
of Zurich. Sheff co-chairs the Consensual Non-Monogamies Legal Issues Team for the American Psychological
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892 E. SHEFF
... Research on polyamory is still incipient although in recent decades, many international works are beginning to appear, mainly from the US and Canada and, to a lesser extent, from Europe, and but still very scarce in Spain. Most studies are theoretical (Kless, 2011;Sheff, 2011Sheff, , 2020 and qualitative (Grunt-Mejer & Chanska, 2020;Sheff, 2005Sheff, , 2006Sheff, , 2011. Although quantitative studies have also appeared in recent years (Balzarini et al., 2019;Grunt-Mejer, & Campbell, 2016;Haupert et al., 2016;Hutzler et al., 2016), there is still a significant knowledge gap concerning polyamorous relationships (Moors et al., 2021;Rubel & Bogaert, 2015;Rubel & Burleigh, 2020). ...
... As with other minorities, social self-exposure as an unconventional sexual or relational minority can mean loss of employment, housing, relationships with friends, families of origin, or custody of the children, so polyamorous people may conceal their identity and relationships from society (Moors et al., 2021;Sheff & Hammers, 2011). This discrimination towards polyamorous people occur within a society structured by monogamy and heteronormativity, where monogamy is the only legitimate form of relationship (Sheff, 2020). Thus, monogamy and compulsory heterosexuality establish the order of romantic relationships imposed by the patriarchal ideology (Heckert, 2010). ...
... In this way, society continues to reproduce concepts, attitudes, and misperceptions about polyamory and other forms of CNM (Conley et al., 2013a(Conley et al., , 2013bGrunt-Mejer & Campbell, 2016;Moors et al., 2013). Perhaps the crucial social reason for considering polyamory and other forms of CNM as deviant relationships is that they expose, on the one hand, the weaknesses of compulsory monogamy and the fading of the heteropatriarchy and, on the other hand, the decline of the heterosexual nuclear family (Sheff, 2020). ...
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The objectives of this study were to determine and to expose the morphology of polyamorous relationships through their conception and characteristics, identifying experienced and perceived situations of discrimination, and to analyze the future expectations for polyamorous relationships. For this purpose, 11 people who were in a polyamorous relationship, with an age ranging from 26 to 57 years, were interviewed. The results show that polyamorous people define their relationships as casual, without possession, a lifestyle that includes friendship, trust, affection, and sex. The success of this type of relationship depends on freedom, respect for each other’s spaces, flexibility of roles, and sharing household expenses and responsibilities. All participants claimed to experience and perceive discrimination by their environment and society. Among their expectations for the future is continuing the relationship, even considering reproduction. Such relationships represent a breakdown of the monogamous society. Poliamory poses many challenges in an attempt to legitimize the diversity of relationships and environments of coexistence in our society.
... It is worth noting that other relationship structures and dynamics are legitimate and can be just as healthy, even though they are highly stigmatized in Western society. Consensual non-monogamy (CNM) is an umbrella term for many types of relationships that do not limit themselves to only having one partner, with variation surrounding agreed upon limits when it comes to sexual and/or emotional relationships with other people (Sheff, 2020). One branch of CNM that this paper will focus on exploring is polyamory, "in which people are allowed to engage in more than one sexual and/or romantic and or/intimate relationship at the same time, with the informed consent of all parties" (Rothschild, 2018, p. 42). ...
... One branch of CNM that this paper will focus on exploring is polyamory, "in which people are allowed to engage in more than one sexual and/or romantic and or/intimate relationship at the same time, with the informed consent of all parties" (Rothschild, 2018, p. 42). The inclusion of informed consent from all parties is an important distinction between polyamory and infidelity and cheating in a monogamous relationship; which Sheff (2020) notes is inherently nonconsensual and doesn't involve discussion or negotiation from all people involved. ...
... There has been plenty of research done exploring monogamy, the benefits of monogamy (York, 2020), how it can become an oppressive experience (Rothschild, 2018& Sheff, 2020, as well as exploring different alternatives to monogamy and their possible benefits (Moors, Matsick, and Schechinger, 2017). Stigma surrounding non-monogamy and the effects of this stigma were studied extensively in works done by Mogilski, et. ...
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Although monogamy is the dominant relationship style in the Western world, there are alternative options for non-monogamous relationship dynamics. This paper works to explore how the roots of how monogamy became the dominant structure, the hidden drawbacks of monogamy, how those who assert monogamy to be compulsory hold a stigma against those who partake in other dynamics, and how this stigma can work to oppress. It also explores what those dynamics are, who participates in them, and a myriad of benefits that non-monogamous relationships can have. Overall coming to the conclusion that everyone should be able to make an informed decision, free of societal judgment, to partake in whatever dynamic they may choose.
... Overall, recent research data show that polyamorous individuals face discrimination in different settings of their lives (Cardoso, 2014 and that polyamory is unfoundedly linked to negative personal characteristics (e.g., diminished trustworthiness) and inadequate parenting skills (Sheff, 2014). This means that any violation of the monogamous ideal could result in the othering of the non-conforming relationship structures (Day, 2013;Ritchie & Barker, 2006) and in considering polyamory and other forms of non-monogamy as not normal (Sheff, 2020). ...
... Interestingly, only mononormativity and polyamorists' parental competence predicted men's negative attitudes towards polyamory. Thus, in the current study, both women and men consider any violation of the monogamous ideal that frames non-conforming relationships as (Sheff, 2020). This study's result coincides with previous studies in this field, suggesting that attitudes toward polyamory may be negatively affected by the predominately monogamous Western culture (see Conley et al., 2013;Hatzenbuehler et al., 2014;Pallota-Chiarrolli, 2006). ...
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There is scarce research regarding attitudes toward polyamory in different socio-cultural contexts. This study examines the role of socio-cultural variance and the situatedness of particular variables (i.e., attitudes toward monogamy, religiosity, political orientation, attitudes toward polyamorists’ parental competence, and concern for polyamorous children’s welfare) in predicting negative attitudes towards polyamory. Two hundred and fifty participants were recruited for this study. A between-subject, correlational design was employed. The findings of this study only partially support the role of context-related socio-cultural and social-psychological factors in determining participants’ attitudes toward polyamory. This study contributes to the literature and research in this field by reporting the transformative potential of context-related socio-cultural and social-psychological factors that affect commonly shared attitudes toward polyamory.
... Along with open relationships and swinging, polyamory is a form of consensual nonmonogamy (CNM; Stephens & Emmers-Sommer, 2019), which is based on principles such as nonexclusivity in romantic relationships and sex, mutual transparency and honesty, deep appreciation of intimacy, partner focus, equality, and communication (Klesse, 2011). Compared to other CNMs, polyamory emphasises emotional intimacy among multiple partners (Sheff, 2020). ...
... Practising polyamory can result in the loss of family ties, friendships or support from communities that do not understand or approve of this relational style (Rodríguez-Castro et al., 2022). Indeed, monogamism, the preferential attitude towards monogamy, stems from mononormativity and marginalises other relational orientations, such as polyamory and other forms of CNM that are deemed indecent, deviant and corrupt, creating feelings of shame and isolation among those who practise them (Sheff, 2020). As found by numerous authors (Haupert et al., 2017;McLean, 2004;Sheff, 2005), polyamory has often been conceived as betrayal and, for this reason, has been subjected to stigma and rejection from family, friends, therapists, and employers. ...
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Polyamory is an umbrella term denoting the practice of having multiple romantic and intimate relationships with the consent of everyone involved. Within a mononormative culture, becoming polyamorous may be associated with uncertainty and a feeling of being suspended. Moreover, the preferential attitude towards monogamy marginalises polyamory as indecent and corrupt, creating feelings of shame and social isolation. Our research explored the discursive construction of polyamory in Italy by identifying the strategies used to deal with such identity construction and social recognition issues. We conducted 15 semistructured interviews with people who defined themselves as polyamorous. Our discourse analysis identified a narrative that overturns the dominant hegemonic perspective; this narrative presented monogamy as a practice generating difficulties and problems and polyamory as a thoroughly satisfying and adequate relational modality. This narrative was constructed using six discursive strategies, allowing participants to achieve three discursive purposes. By naturalising polyamory and constructing it as a stable trait, participants essentialised polyamory; by providing a normative definition of polyamory and identifying with the polyamorous community, they set up the boundaries of polyamory; finally, by moralising polyamory and attributing transformative power to it, they valorised polyamory. Overall, the definition of a polyamorous order allows for the integration of polyamory into one’s life, even if polyamorists remain a minority group trapped in the public liminality brought about by a mononormative culture.
... As with how the diagnosis of sex addiction represents a sociopsychological discourse centered around collective sociosexual anxieties (Reay et al., 2013), the stigmatization of CNM could be seen as indicative of sociosexual conservatism. In this case, the stigma attached to non-monogamous relationships arguably elevates and protects the ubiquity of the nuclear family (Sheff, 2020). This is not dissimilar to how other sexual minority groups have been seen as threatening "traditional" relationships (van der Toorn et al., 2020), hence the crossover in the narratives used to stigmatize them. ...
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Monogamous marriage, sometimes called “the bedrock of society,” still carries an apparent “halo” of moral superiority as a relationship structure. In contrast, consensual non-monogamous (CNM) configurations are stigmatized. Research indicates a connection between stigma, stress, and negative health outcomes, despite CNM comparing favorably with monogamy. The present study uses interviews to explore minority stress and resilience among individuals in CNM relationships. Participants experienced structural stigma as erasure, and interpersonal stigma as erasure and educational/emotional work. They also describe complex enmeshment between their relationship minority status and other aspects of their sexual and gender identities. Strategic disclosure and concealment were important management tools. Furthermore, managing individual (internalized) stigma was described as unlearning mononormative bias and surrounding oneself with supportive peers/allies. The strongest motivator for perseverance was the steadfast conviction that the advantages of CNM outweighed the challenges.
... The term consensual attempts to shed light on the nature of this usually mutually chosen lifestyle and refers to honesty, transparency, and deliberate choice. Furthermore, it is distinguished from 14 infidelity, meaning extrarelational sexual and/or romantic endeavours that have not been negotiated with one's partner (Sheff, 2020). ...
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Much research has been done on explaining individual differences regarding relational satisfaction in traditional (i.e., monogamous) romantic relationships. While communication and emotion regulation in monogamous relationships have been previously confirmed to be important predictors of relationship satisfaction, no such study has been done on consensually non-monogamous (CNM) relationships. This study, of 261 Germany-based participants in at least one romantic relationship, aims to fill this gap. Overall N = 179 monogamous participants and N = 82 consensually non-monogamous (CNM) participants were asked to respond to an online survey regarding communication function, communication patterns, emotion regulation, and relationship satisfaction. The responses were analysed by means of t-tests and multiple regression. Significant results were found regarding higher destructive communication and aggressive externalisation scores in the monogamous sample compared to the CNM sample. Predictors of relationship satisfaction in the monogamous sample were partner communication function, emotional distraction, and expressive suppression, whereas predictors in the CNM sample were actor communication function, and mutual constructive communication. Therapeutic implications, limitations, and future directions are discussed.
... Researchers have argued that CNM stigmatization occurs because these relationship orientations threaten the social conventions surrounding monogamy (e.g., nuclear families), and non-monogamous partners are perceived as having morally questionable practices, and as being dishonest and promiscuous (Mogilski et al., 2020;Sheff, 2020) and is partly attributable to the perception of STI risk being higher among people in CNM relationships (Balzarini et al., 2018). Aligned with this reasoning, Rodrigues and colleagues (2021) found that romantic partners in a committed non-monogamous relationship-whether open or polyamorous-tended to be dehumanized because they were perceived as immoral and uncommitted to their relationships. ...
Interest in consensually non-monogamous relationships (CNM) has been increasing in the general population in recent years. However, given the cultural dominance of monogamy and the normative expectations often imposed through socialization (i.e., mononormativity), people in CNM relationships may experience negativity, which can become internalized and harm their individual and relationship health. The present study investigates if internalized mononormativity is associated with more self- and partner-directed stigma and if internalized CNM negativity is an underlying mechanism for these associations. Results showed that participants who endorsed more mononormativity beliefs also reported more internalized CNM negativity. In turn, participants who experienced more internalized negativity also reported more self-directed CNM stigma, attributed more negative (vs. positive) emotions to themselves, and treated their partners as more immature, unrefined, exploitable, and emotionless. These results show that mononormativity and internalized negativity are significant contributors to individual and relational functioning.
This paper uses a queer theoretical lens to redefine family boundaries and structures by exploring LGBTQIA+ and single adults' relationships through the interconnectedness of their marginalized histories. Queer theory both centers LGBTQIA+ lives and deconstructs normativities. The overlapping history of singlehood and LGBTQIA+ will be explored using examples including romantic friendships, same-sex couples and legal marriage, family of choice, and relationship anarchy. These examples explore how LGBTQIA+ people have often been considered single or choose new interpretations of singlehood (e.g., solo polyamory). The paper also explores how single people have often been considered outside the heterosexual norm. Thus, how these lived experiences deconstruct heteronormativity and can deconstruct mononormativity, amatonormativity, and homonormativity is examined. Understanding and acknowledging family lives beyond these normativities will build toward a more inclusive family and relationship science.
In this chapter we set out the conceptual landscape of the book. We explore the place studies of deviant leisure have had within the wider field of leisure studies and its somewhat lesser presence within event studies. Our central argument is that in both fields it has been treated in a way that has given it neither the space nor inclination to delve into the theme in a way that respects the integrity and hard work of its practitioners and event planners. If one pursues the lines of flight that emerge from such an approach one embarks on a deviant journey within critical perspectives in both leisure and event studies; the result is a book that transgresses the frame of a standard academic edited collection to become more of a compendium of deviant leisure, event, and practice.KeywordsLeisureDeviance/DeviantEventsCommunityTrangressiveSociety/Social
Polyamory and other forms of consensual non-monogamy (CNM) represent a limited yet increasingly common approach to intimate relationships. This article opens with definitions and estimated prevalence of CNM. It summarizes recent research on attitudes toward polyamory among both mental health clinicians and the public, including how these attitudes impact polyamorous people. The article includes recommendations for counselors that are grounded in the principles of Relational-Cultural Therapy: increasing knowledge of polyamory, examining personal bias, practicing affirmatively, and avoiding inappropriate focus on clients’ relationship styles. The article concludes with a call for further research and development of competencies for counseling polyamorous clients.
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Despite HCI's interest in topics around sexuality, pornography has remained underexplored. Specifically, the user experience (UX) of technology-mediated pornography has received little attention, even though it has been argued that it may contribute to a better understanding of pleasure and enjoyability of interactive systems. We surveyed 187 participants about a positive experience involving technology-mediated pornography. Autonomy and competence, as well as sexual arousal and desire emerged as the most characteristic dimensions of positive experiences with pornographic content. However, preliminary qualitative analysis suggests that many participants also experienced mixed feelings due to technology. Overall, our findings provide first insights into the complexity of the user experience of technology-mediated pornography.
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Both in everyday life and scholarly discourse, monogamists and polyamorists tend to unfavorably portray one another as somehow flawed, misguided, or, in a word, “inferior.” This article documents and critically examines two pairs of interlocked psychosocial attitudes—monopride/polyphobia and polypride/monophobia—mediating this predicament of mutual competition in the context of Western mononormative culture. The ideological nature of these “mono–poly wars” is demonstrated through a brief review of empirical literature on the psychological health and relationship quality of monogamous and polyamorous individuals and couples. The article concludes by outlining a critical pluralist approach that eschews universalizing hierarchies between monogamy and polyamory, and provides tools for making qualitative distinctions within and among relational styles.
The present study examined how attitudes toward divorce as well as the Investment Model relate to the decision to divorce following a spouse's infidelity among European Americans and Asian/Asian Americans. Participants were 325 participants (155 male, 170 female) who completed a survey. Structural Equation Modeling was employed to test the hypotheses. Overall, the model showed that gender, personal income, infidelity type, quality of alternative, commitment, and divorce attitudes are associated with the stay/leave decision. Ethnicity moderated these relationships as the investment model variables are associated with European American participants' decision-making whereas for Asian Americans, only attitude toward divorce was a strong predictor. These findings suggest European Americans and Asian Americans weigh different factors when making the decision to divorce or remain together. Understanding the variables associated with stay/leave decisions, particularly with a cross-cultural lens, provides insight into why some individuals remain together following an infidelity.
Drawing on qualitative in-depth interviews with people in the USA who have formed consensually non-monogamous relationships, this article introduces the term relational panopticism and uses empirical data to demonstrate the theoretical concept. Three primary themes in the data illustrate the origin, expression, and enforcement of relational panopticism: (1) encounters with institutions; (2) encounters with personal networks; and (3) coping and resistance strategies. Focusing on the daily reproduction of compulsory monogamy and the ways in which people in non-monogamous relationships negotiate and resist that reproduction, this study reveals how marginalized romantic and sexual relationship configurations are received and negotiated in interaction with family, peer groups, and institutions.
What happens at college parties? Why do students dress and behave the way they do? Who has power, and what kind? And are college students happy overall with party and hookup culture? In response to undergraduates’ skepticism of researchers’ accounts of hookup culture, the author engaged 126 college students as ethnographers to observe and analyze this complex social reality at parties. Part I presents their results, revealing a disillusionment with contemporary sexual and relational norms that challenges benevolent or even neutral views of hookup culture. Part II brings students into conversation with Christianity’s narrative of what it means to become fully human and experience genuine joy and fulfillment. The spokesperson for this vision is theologian Johann Metz, whose portrait of Jesus struggling to become fully human by embracing poverty of spirit resonates with today’s college students. Comparing Jesus’s way of being in the world with their college culture’s status quo, many undergraduates discover in Metz’s Poverty of Spirit a countercultural path to authenticity, happiness, and fulfillment. Part III culminates in a call to action: with understanding of contemporary norms gained in part I, and poverty of spirit as explored in part II, these chapters explore obstacles to sexual justice on college campuses, identify key commitments necessary for change, and envision how undergraduates can work to create the college culture they truly desire and deserve.