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Definition: polyamory from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(1994) : the state or practice of having more than one open romantic relationship at a time

poly•am•or•ist \-rist\ n

poly•am•o•rous \-॑a-mə-rəs, -॑am-rəs\ adj

Summary Article: Polyamory
from Encyclopedia of Gender and Society

Given the root words of the term, polyamory is defined as the “love of many”: poly, stemming from the Greek term meaning “many,” and amor, stemming from the Latin term meaning “love.” The Polyamory Society describes polyamory as “the nonpossessive, honest, responsible, and ethical philosophy and practice of loving multiple people simultaneously.” Other terms used to describe polyamory are responsible, ethical, or intentional nonmonogamy, sexual love, and ero-romance. There are subcategories and practices of polyamory; these include but are not limited to poly-fidelity, groups of three or more people who consider themselves intimately partnered and/or married; polygyny, a group consisting of one husband and many wives; and other arrangements that are defined as being different from monogamous dyadic relationships. Multiple relationships can take many forms, such as group marriage, primary and secondary relationships, and casual sexual involvement with two or more people.

Polyamory is a relatively new term. However, the practices related to polyamory are not new and have been present across various periods of time and cultures. In addition to the contested nature of the term, there are also debates concerning how the term originated. Until approximately 10 to 15 years ago, polyamory was not a culturally recognized term; “poly” was rarely used as a descriptive identity and rarely applied to sexual and emotional practices. In current everyday contexts, it continues to remain a largely unrecognized term. Many people who currently engage in or philosophically believe in practicing polyamory often refer to their real and/or preferred relationships as “open relationships.”

Polyamory, as both a term and practice, carries importance in communities that share and discuss practices that do not privilege the love of one other person and that challenge dyadic notions of what it means to love. Most of the “poly” organizations that currently exist can be found on Web sites that offer descriptions of what polyamory is, how it is practiced, and other informational points, such as how to negotiate jealousy in polyamorous relationships. There is very little empirical analysis of this topic, although discussions about multiple loves, polyfamilies, and similar issues are beginning to emerge in sexuality and gender literature. These topics have also begun to appear in sessions at social science conferences and through various listservs. For example, sociologist Elisabeth Sheff recently started a listserv that allows the increasing number of researchers doing work in this area to connect with each other to discuss ideas, methods, and experiences.

Dyadic Love

Love, like polyamory, is a highly contested and thus far unresolved social science phenomenon. For example, there are many different perspectives on what it means to love, ways to love, and who should love whom. Many scholars offer theories about love that are based on a Western definition of the “normal” relationship, which is rooted in a dyadic frame of reference. The presumed nature of love, desires, and relationships as residing solely within the couple influences the ways people think of and research relationships, including cross-cultural investigations. Love, relationships, and desires are complex in nature, and sexual identities are fluid and contextual.

Research on monogamy, nonmonogamy (a contested term that has been criticized for reproducing the ideal norm of monogamy), polyfidelity, polyamory, and open relationships tends to investigate romantic love as it is negotiated and experienced within the couple. Therefore, we know less about romantic love in triads and other multiple relationships. Deborah Anapol (1997) complicates matters by arguing that serial monogamy is in fact closer to polyamory than we would assume. She claims that those who engage in serial monogamy (different partners over time) have multiple-partner relationships that are merely divided by time. However, polyamorists generally define their multiple-love relationships as the engagement in such relationships at the same time. Thus, in addition to the dearth of polyamory literature, terms and sexual practices have been contested. Swinging is one such term that is consistently contested within the “poly” community because it is not universally regarded as “responsible” nonmonogamy.

The notion of love and relationships as dyadic does not reflect reality, people’s real desires, experiences, and the ways in which love changes throughout the life course and across different levels of social analysis, such as race, class, gender, and sexuality. To gain a better understanding of the social processes of love that fall outside of normalized assumptions of the dyad, there have been two shifts in recent sexuality research. First, queer theorists have been debating and discussing the social implications of privileging love as between two people. This debate has especially begun to take root in discussions regarding the same-sex marriage debates. Second, due to this shift in how intimacy, love, and sexuality are discussed, more research in the humanities and social sciences has directly addressed the topic of polyamory.

Cross-Cultural Studies and Gendered Patterns

While there is a lack of research on polyamorous emotional experiences and practices within disciplines such as sociology, anthropologists have conducted studies that challenge Western preconceived notions of kinship, monogamy, and sexual practices. These studies challenge Euro-American constructions of kinship, dyads, and heterosexuality, while highlighting how some family forms, while perhaps not monogamous, are still gendered. In terms of the gendered inequalities that can emerge in and through polyamorous relationships situated in the United States, Elisabeth Sheff’s (2006) studies have shown how certain practices with all members of a polyamorous relationship are often gendered. Through the processes of organizing domestic life, women in the relationships tend to do a lot of emotional and logistical work.

Sociologists and anthropologists are interested in the practices that different people participate in as well as the social meanings different cultures and societies attach to those practices. In this way, researchers investigate peoples’ day-to-day experiences. In the instance of love, if the predominant love practice in a particular society is marriage, that practice requires the “union” of one “man” and one “woman.” This practice repeated time and time again and reinforced through power relations within the family, in occupational settings, and other social contexts, will most likely be institutionalized and taken as “natural.”

Cross-cultural research complicates Western commonsense understandings of marriage, intimacy, family relations, sexuality, and economic relations. For example, the anthropological work of anthropologist Cai Hua on the Na of China challenges assumed familial and relationship categories. In particular, Clifford Geertz (2003) argues that Hua’s study of the Na shows that the practices of both marriage and monogamy are not universal ideals. The Na, Hua argues, have a completely different social organization of sexuality that is, even though monogamous marriage is absent, a “social institution.” Particular gendered practices are expected; for example, children are treated differently based on gender and even though marriage per se is absent, there are rules and regulations associated with the Na’s sexual practices. In regard to polyamory, Hua’s work demonstrates the different ways love is situated. That is, the Na do not situate love and intimate relationships solely within dyadic contexts. Such research that demonstrates the multiple ways love and relationships are played out over time and space points to the problematic nature of conflating love with coupled relationships.


Questions concerning intimate relationships across cultures are directly related to those questions that have just begun to emerge in the polyamory literature. As stated above, polyamory is a term that is linked to a sexual and emotional practice and experience that is emerging in Western culture. While the term is quite new, similar sexual practices that do not rely on love between two people have emerged in different spaces throughout different periods of time. However, the practice of loving many is especially salient in the early 21st century and in Euro-American discourses. Further, the debates concerning polyamory are sociological in that there are real social consequences and material inequalities that remain on the periphery when polyamory and other similar forms of love are overlooked. As polyamorists argue, and as recent research has shown, institutions such as marriage marginalize relationship forms that fall outside of the couple, even more specifically the heterosexual couple. The benefits, such as legal rights and privileges that one accrues through marriage, cannot be realized by those who do not practice and engage in coupled relationships. Polyamory, while not a new practice, is both a new concept and a compelling sociological issue for those interested in analyzing heterosexually based social structures, institutions, and beliefs.

    See also
  • Compulsory Heterosexuality; Domestic Partners/Civil Unions; Family Law; Heterosexual Privilege; Institution, Gender as; Marriage Promotion Act; Monogamy; Mormons, Gender Roles and; Polygamy; Queer; Queer Studies; Same-Sex Marriage

Further Readings
  • Anapol, D. M. (1997). Polyamory: The new love without limits. San Rafael, CA: IntiNet Resource Center.
  • Butler, J. (2004). Undoing gender. New York: Routledge.
  • Geertz, C. (2003). The visit. In Annual editions: Anthropology (pp. 94-99). Guilford, CT: McGraw-Hill/Dushkin.
  • Sheff, E. (2006, March). Destabilizing the dyad: Polyamorists queering non-traditional families. Paper presented at the Southern Sociological Society Annual Conference, New Orleans, LA.
  • Danielle Antoinette Hidalgo

    Kristen Barber
    Copyright © 2008 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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