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For many in my fearful, frustrated generation, “having it all” means opting out of monogamy

The Daily Mail would have you believe that polyamory is all wild orgies. Think more tea and washing up rotas.

Polyamory, if you believe the news­papers, is the hot new lifestyle option for affectless hipsters with alarming haircuts, or a sex cult, or both. A wave of trend articles and documentaries has thrown new light on the practice, also known as “ethical non-monogamy” – a technical term for any arrangement in which you are allowed to date and snuggle and sleep with whomever you want, as long as everyone involved is happy. Responses to this idea range from parental concern to outright panic.

Having been polyamorous for almost a decade, I spend a good deal of time explaining what it all means. When I told my editor that I wanted to write about polyamory, she adjusted her monocle, puffed on her pipe and said, “In my day, young lady, we just called it shagging around.” So I consider it my duty to her and the rest of the unenlightened to explain what’s different about how the kids are doing it these days.

The short answer is: it’s not the shagging around that’s new. There is nothing new about shagging around. I hear that it has been popular since at least 1963. What’s new is talking about it like grown-ups. It’s the conversations. It’s the texts with your girlfriend’s boyfriend about what to get her for her birthday. It’s sharing your Google Calendars to make sure nobody feels neglected.

The Daily Mail would have you believe that polyamory is all wild orgies full of rainbow-haired hedonists rhythmically thrusting aside common decency and battering sexual continence into submission with suspicious bits of rubber. And there is some truth to that. But far more of my polyamorous life involves making tea and talking sensibly about boundaries, safe sex and whose turn it is to do the washing-up.

Over the past ten years, I have been a “single poly” with no main partner; I have been in three-person relationships; I have had open relationships and have dated people in open marriages. The best parts of those experiences have overwhelmingly been clothed ones.

There’s something profoundly millennial about polyamory, something quintessentially bound up with my fearful, frustrated, overexamined generation, with our swollen sense of consequence, our need to balance instant gratification with the impulse to do good in a world gone mad. We want the sexual adventure and the free love that our parents, at least in theory, got to enjoy, but we also have a greater understanding of what could go wrong. We want fun and freedom, but we also want a good mark in the test. We want to do the right thing.

All of this makes polyamory sound a bit nerdy, a bit swotty – and it is. I find myself bewildered when online trend pieces aiming for titillation clicks present polyamory as gruesomely hip or freakishly fashionable. Polyamory is a great many things, but it is not cool. Talking honestly about feelings will never be cool. Spending time discussing interpersonal boundaries and setting realistic expectations wasn’t cool in the 1970s, and it isn’t cool now. It is, however, necessary.

There is so little that makes ethical sense in the lives of young and youngish people today. If there is an economic type that is over-represented among the poly people I have encountered, it is members of the precariat: what Paul Mason memorably called the middle-class “graduate with no future”.

Even the limited social and economic ­certainties that our parents grew up with are unavailable to us. We are told, especially if we are women, that the answer to loneliness and frustration is to find that one ideal partner who will fulfil all our emotional, financial, domestic and sexual needs. We are told this even though we know full well that it doesn’t work out for a lot of people. Almost half of all marriages end in divorce.

Paradoxically, as religious patriarchy has loosened its moral grip on the West, the doctrine of monogamous romance has become ever more entrenched. Marriage was once understood as a practical, domestic arrangement that involved a certain degree of self-denial. Now your life partner is also supposed to answer your every intimate and practical need.

Polyamory is a response to the understanding that, for many of us, this ideal is impractical, if not an active cause of unhappiness. People have all sorts of needs through their lives – love, companionship, care and intimacy, sexual adventure and self-expression – and expecting one person to be able to meet all of them is not only unrealistic, it’s unreasonable. Women in particular, who often end up doing most of the emotional labour in conventional, monogamous, heterosexual relationships, don’t have the energy to be anyone’s everything.

I don’t expect anyone to be everything to me. I want freedom, and I want to be ethical, and I also want affection and pleasure. I guess I’m greedy. I guess I’m a woman who wants to have it all. It’s just that my version of “having it all” is different from the picture of marriage, mortgage and monogamy to which I was raised to aspire.

Not all polyamorous relationships work out – and nor do all conventional relationships. We’re making it up as we go along. It would be helpful to be able to do that without also having to deal with prejudice and suspicion. Still, it’s easy to see where the suspicion comes from. The idea of desire without bounds or limits is threatening. It is a threat to a social order that exerts control by putting fences around our fantasies. It is a threat to a society that has developed around the idea of mandatory heterosexual partnership as a way to organise households. It is threatening because it is utopian in a culture whose imagination is dystopian. Freedom is often frightening, and ­polyamory is about balancing individual freedom with mutual care. In this atomised culture, that’s a revolutionary idea. 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 11 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, From the Somme to lraq

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The economics of outrage: Why you haven't seen the end of Katie Hopkins

Her distasteful tweet may have cost her a job at LBC, but this isn't the last we've seen of Britain's biggest troll. 

Another atrocity, other surge of grief and fear, and there like clockwork was the UK’s biggest troll. Hours after the explosion at the Manchester Arena that killed 22 mostly young and female concert goers, Katie Hopkins weighed in with a very on-brand tweet calling for a “final solution” to the complex issue of terrorism.

She quickly deleted it, replacing the offending phrase with the words “true solution”, but did not tone down the essentially fascist message. Few thought it had been an innocent mistake on the part of someone unaware of the historical connotations of those two words.  And no matter how many urged their fellow web users not to give Hopkins the attention she craved, it still sparked angry tweets, condemnatory news articles and even reports to the police.

Hopkins has lost her presenting job at LBC radio, but she is yet to lose her column at Mail Online, and it’s quite likely she won’t.

Mail Online and its print counterpart The Daily Mail have regularly shown they are prepared to go down the deliberately divisive path Hopkins was signposting. But even if the site's managing editor Martin Clarke was secretly a liberal sandal-wearer, there are also very good economic reasons for Mail Online to stick with her. The extreme and outrageous is great at gaining attention, and attention is what makes money for Mail Online.

It is ironic that Hopkins’s career was initially helped by TV’s attempts to provide balance. Producers could rely on her to provide a counterweight to even the most committed and rational bleeding-heart liberal.

As Patrick Smith, a former media specialist who is currently a senior reporter at BuzzFeed News points out: “It’s very difficult for producers who are legally bound to be balanced, they will sometimes literally have lawyers in the room.”

“That in a way is why some people who are skirting very close or beyond the bounds of taste and decency get on air.”

But while TV may have made Hopkins, it is online where her extreme views perform best.  As digital publishers have learned, the best way to get the shares, clicks and page views that make them money is to provoke an emotional response. And there are few things as good at provoking an emotional response as extreme and outrageous political views.

And in many ways it doesn’t matter whether that response is negative or positive. Those who complain about what Hopkins says are also the ones who draw attention to it – many will read what she writes in order to know exactly why they should hate her.

Of course using outrageous views as a sales tactic is not confined to the web – The Daily Mail prints columns by Sarah Vine for a reason - but the risks of pushing the boundaries of taste and decency are greater in a linear, analogue world. Cancelling a newspaper subscription or changing radio station is a simpler and often longer-lasting act than pledging to never click on a tempting link on Twitter or Facebook. LBC may have had far more to lose from sticking with Hopkins than Mail Online does, and much less to gain. Someone prepared to say what Hopkins says will not be out of work for long. 

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