FROM THE FUCKBUCKET: “Is polyamory a sexual orientation or more like a lifestyle choice?”
Short answer: yes.
Long answer: strap in, we’re going for a ride.
For the sake of accuracy, I should point out that this question posits sexual orientation as being intrinsic ("nature"), by contrasting it with “lifestyle choice” (a conscious decision or choice, something that can be changed, "nurture" in the classic debate). This stance is still occasionally under discussion, both in queer culture and in society at large, though it's less fiercely debated than it used to be. I’ll tell you in a little bit why I don’t think it matters.
This question pops up a fair bit at parties or at polyamory munches or online discussion forums. I personally think that any sexual behavior has both an orientation component (“nature”) and a social/cultural component (“nurture”). You’re born with a capacity for the thing, but your upbringing and other personal/social/cultural circumstances will determine how you decide to act on it or manifest it, and even whether or not you even notice it as a possibility for yourself.
I hold my answer to be true not only for this question, but also for any other question about whether any given non-mainstream sexual behavior or activity or identity is an orientation or a lifestyle choice.
These things are complicated, and also vary from person to person. One person may believe strongly that they have always been polyamorous and never had a moment’s doubt about it, while another person may have never really thought about it until they met a potential partner who was, and then they read up about it and went to munches and talked to people about it and tried on polyamoury and found that it was a fine way to conduct relationships, if they wanted to, but it was just one thing in their relationship toolkit, not essential, just handy if they happened to fall in love with a polyamorous person.
I confess I do sometimes wonder about why this question gets asked, because I have seen what happens in socio-political movements sometimes. It’s a short little process that goes something like this:
- People in the group try to find proof or arguments that the thing they are talking about is intrinsic and “born with.” They are helped by the fact that scientific research into these identities often picks up when the identities in question are starting to make waves in the larger culture. We saw this a lot with gay and lesbian movements in the last thirty years; the trans movement has also been subjected to this. Being "born that way” is a crucial component to the next step…
- Armed with the proof that they were “born that way,” people’s pleas for tolerance can then be justified. Who would be so cruel as to deny folks their rights to just be? (Turns out lots of people.)
In other words, this question so often seems to be a prelude to “don’t deny me my rights, I was born like this.”
Do you see what a bullshit construct this is. We know that things that absolutely, incontrovertibly are intrinsic parts of a person—skin color, where someone was born, etc—are easily used against individuals. And we also know that in some places, there are lifestyle choices—religion, having children, even (in the US) owning guns—that are fiercely protected as inviolable. What aspects of a person’s identity are important enough to be defended in court are simply subject to the winds of politics and public opinion.
So I hold to the radical option of IT DOESN’T MATTER how you got to be you, as long as you’re not hurting anyone nor trying to use your views to change anyone else’s behavior. Doesn’t matter if you were sneaking kisses with multiple other kids in kindergarten, or you took the workshop last week and are giving it a go because you like the conferences.
Whether it’s intrinsic or a lifestyle choice, IT’S ALL FINE, and should not be the basis for stigma, prejudice, or discrimination.
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