Predicaments of the Polyamorous
When I first told my mother I was polyamorous and bisexual, bewilderment was all the response I could receive. Bisexuality was unacceptable, because to my surprise, she did understand what it meant. However, polyamory was just a seemingly fancy term for “loose”. After explaining what it meant, she didn’t look at me like I had been altered; it all seemed too far-fetched to be a part of her daughter. Ever since then I have been answering a multitude of questions that keep trying to drive my reality to a very frivolous edge.
Polyamory is exciting, but if there were a singular model for it, it would stop being formidable and perhaps easier to navigate. As a solo-polyamorous individual—that is someone who is in multiple intimate relationships without absolving the single life— confronting that “label” has been a constant part of my life. Polyamory has been described as a type of partnership, an ideology, a lifestyle, a relationship preference, or a person's identity. These relationships can be hierarchical, with one primary partner and the rest as secondary partners, it can be egalitarian where all partners are understood to be on a singular plane, or it can be solo polyamory. However, it isn’t limited to the aforementioned divisions and is often vibrantly subjective. Although some people see polyamory as nothing more than a comfortable term for their existing relationship constellations or a way to communicate their ability to be in several relationships at the same time, some see it as a central identity. As it is heavily stigmatized, the exploration of polyamory as one’s central identity is often a tedious process. This gets even more complicated, when the polyamorous community seems almost invisible, which is what happens in India. .
The invisible community
I first realized that I was polyamorous four years ago, and after numerous bad dates consisting of either having to constantly defend polyamory or be slut shamed, I managed to find a small community where I’m understood and accepted. Unfortunately this community is not that easily visible or accessible to all those who seek it. People often fail to understand things that have no schematic representation and are a deviation from all their pre-existing notions. Post-colonial India has been a slave to outdated Victorian ideals of sexual expression, and the existence of polyamorous relationships is often perceived as a threat to the familial structure. One may argue that polyamory can be freed from any stigma if we are guided by moral relativism, but unfortunately that isn’t the case. In a country like India, where even nuclear families are still a fresh and reluctant reality, polyamory is unfathomable and if actually encountered, it’s amoral. Despite this, there are certain polyamorists who are on the path to redefine stringent societal norms and pave the way for acceptance, but this comes alongside extreme stigma and often at the cost of their mental health. There is a growing community of polyamorists within India, but it’s limited to hushed Facebook groups and a handful of popular press articles. Paving a path for representation or even acceptance requires a lot of structural change, which is still many long and dark tunnels ahead.
Structures and their Gods
Morality is often shaped by - or rather confused - with legality and is still guided by religious structures. The Indian legal system has constantly been challenged for its interference with the sexual expression of its citizens. With the decriminalization of adultery that is section 497 A of the Indian penal code and the landmark judgement regarding IPC section 377, the freedom to exercise sexual autonomy has found some footing in this country. Yet, the central government’s homophobic comments on the legality of same-sex marriage and the preservation of “marital sanctity” are proof enough that we have a long way to go before polyamory is even addressed by the legal structures. The adoption laws too have made some progress by allowing couples in live-in relationships to adopt a child together, but there is no room for same-sex couples or polyamorous persons in this progress. The current family laws not only propagate and protect mononormativity and heteronormativity, but they actively harm and discriminate against those in polyamorous relationships. This surveillance of sexuality by the legal system has a friend in religious norms and even mythological representations: The practice of polygamy and a few examples of polyandry are present in Islam as well as Hinduism, polyamory was never invited to the party. These religious and legal structures shape people’s ideas regarding the sanctity of the current familial structures, and anything that is perceived as a deviation is labeled amoral and therefore forced to hide behind the curtains. This ‘amoral’ label is even more distinctive when gender and sexual orientation step into the conversation.
Gender, sexual orientation, and the works
A woman’s sexual expression is often an oxymoron, especially if it isn’t serving the male gaze. So, what does polyamory do for women’s sexual expression? Well, research states that some women report higher levels of sexual subjectivity and empowerment when practicing polyamory; however, the same study also concluded that this sexual subjectivity is accompanied by extreme stigma and an intensified objectification. This stigma is also prevalent for polyamorous men, but being rooted in the “player” stereotype, it is often perceived as a positive thing, especially amongst heterosexual men. More differences arise when queer polyamory is in question. Despite the assumption that polyamory is more prevalent among the queer community, a study interestingly noted that while most women in their polyamorous sample were bisexual or pansexual, most men were heterosexual. Polyamory does offer more sexual and romantic fluidity, but it comes with a responsibility for constant honest communication and variety of differences. The research regarding the roles of gender and sexuality in shaping perspectives regarding polyamorous individuals is limited, but not non-existent. However, before branching research progresses in the aforementioned area, it’s important to note that any research that exists regarding attitudes towards said individuals in general, mostly consists of western samples.
Current research and possible interventions
There are a handful of articles covered by popular press in the last few years regarding this subject, but empirical research studying how the Indian population perceives polyamory is at the brink of complete absence. However, there is a growing body of research on the same in many western countries.
A study conducted in 2019 examined the comments on numerous articles with polyamory and consensual non-monogamy as their subject. A total of 482 comments were compiled and reviewed using thematic analysis in response to three posts on the subject of polyamory. There were five major themes identified: Polyamory has been categorized as "valid and beneficial, unsustainable, perverse, amoral, and unappealing, acceptable, and deficient".
Participants who described polyamory to be valid and beneficial or even acceptable were often polyamorous themselves or were acquainted with other polyamorous individuals. Those who termed it to be unsustainable or deficient held doubts regarding it being a functional relationship model and claimed that it was not a representation of “true love”. In case of perverse, amoral, and unappealing, polyamory was described to be a threat to society and the individuals in said relationships were termed to be obsessed with sex and in need of help.
Though the study did not collect data on the socio-demographic background of the commenters, by tracking some of the profiles it did state that many of the negative comments were from a politically conservative population. Another study showed similar results, where negative perceptions were higher amongst individuals with more traditional attributes, like conservatism or religiosity.
Prior exposure to polyamory was shown to be strongly linked to comparatively positive attitudes toward polyamory, supporting Allport's contact hypothesis that claims that interacting with members of the outgroup encourages learning about them and, as a result, may reduce prejudice. In addition to the contact hypothesis, the study also reported that the value-confrontation intervention to be an effective way for changing people’s attitudes regarding polyamory. In a value self-confrontation intervention, inconsistencies in people's beliefs are shown in order to inspire them to change their perceptions and behaviors.
While empirical research largely conducted in the WEIRD nations suggest that interventions that can result in the destigmatization of polyamory, increased representation would help investigations that take into account polyamory in an Indian context.
Simran Hora (she/her) is a Mental Health Advocate at Nolmë labs. She spends her time reading research papers and old books, and you are likely to see her spontaneously break into song every five minutes!