Don't use Mick Philpott's case as a stick to bash polyamory

I'm in a relationship with three men, says Charlie Hallam, and it's nothing like the controlling, coercive hold that Mick Philpott had over his wife and mistress.

One of the things about living as a member of a minority social group is that you tend to be on the lookout for things in the news that might affect how people think of you. It's not just about curiosity - it's also about fear, and pain. It's about the experience, time and again, of saying who you are and how you live and love, and being met with fear, confusion, misinformation and disgust.

Now, another news source has found another way in which the Philpott family can be used to demonstrate how a particular group of people are depraved. This has been happening all week. The Philpotts' story, if you haven't caught it, is one of individual tragedy, with a father's jealous desire for control over his children and their mothers resulting in the tragic death of six of them in an misguided bid to game the legal system. Over the course of this week, this bizarre story has been wheeled out by journalists and politicians as an example of all that's wrong with whatever the writer or speaker already disapproves of. On Friday, it was the BBC, and the target was polyamory.

Polyamory is a recent term, coined in the early 1990s to describe people like me who are in relationships with more than one other person, or people who date while already in a relationship with the full knowledge and consent of their partner(s).

The reason the BBC article is so disappointing for polyamorous people is that it makes no effort to distinguish between religious and often (but not always) coercive polygamy, and other relationship forms under the umbrella of polyamory and ethical non-monogamy.

For example, the article claims that polyamorous relationships subordinate women. But Dr Christine Campbell, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at St Mary's University College, says: "This is absolutely without foundation. There is no research which has found this to my knowledge. In fact the most common poly relationships are found between homosexual men. Research suggests that at least 50 per cent of gay male relationships are consensually non-monogamous in some form or another (some estimates put it as high as 75 per cent) . . . Who takes advantage of whom in a same-sex poly relationship?"

Sarah Brown, Lib Dem councillor for Cambridge, told me: "The BBC's article paints a very inaccurate view of polyamory. The concentration on women being 'pressured' into them by men ignores the existence of all-women polyamorous relationships, such as mine, as well as a number of other kind of poly relationship structures. Polyamorous relationships take many diverse forms. The idea that it's all about a man having a harem is an unhelpful stereotype. The issue here isn't polyamory. The issue here is abusive relationships, and most of those involve only two people."

These misunderstandings have very real effects on polyamorous individuals and groups. In my family, we have told all four sets of parents about our living arrangements and that it is for the long haul, but with varying levels of skepticism. And we always have the spectre in the back of the conversation that this is an exploitative thing. That we are taking one another for a ride. That it's all about the sex. That it's a harem (although how you can have a harem of one woman in a house with three men is slightly baffling to me).

Dr Thom Brooks, the academic approached for the BBC piece, is not an expert on polyamory, and was according to his twitter feed unaware of the purpose of the piece in which he's quoted. Throughout the piece, the terms polyamory and polygamy are used interchangably, and the title of the piece, 'Philpott fire deaths trial shines light on polyamory', clearly implies a link between ethical non-monogamous polyamory such as my family with the actions that led to the deaths of six children.

Dr Brooks is a reader in law, and his page on Durham University's website lists 12 areas of interest. But polyamory, ethical non-monogamy and polygamy are not on that list. Nor is he an expert on polygamy - however, at least in this area he has written one paper, entitled, "The Problem with Polygamy". The only reference he makes in the paper to polyamory is towards the end, where it is clear that he understands little of the distinction between the different forms of non-monogamy and the ethical and consensual focus of polyamory.

Perhaps if Dr Brooks were more familiar with the field, he would have been aware of the wealth of research on the subject, most of which is from the fields of psychology and sociology, rather than from his field of law.

Dr Campbell lists "jealousy in consensually non-monogamous relationships" as an area in which she is particularly interested, and a major focus of her research. She told me: "As far as I can tell [Dr Brooks] hasn't done any research on polyamory, actually. A number of the references Dr Brooks refers to are about polygamy as a structure within strongly religious communities. I'd suggest that most of the misogyny mentioned probably stems more from religious thinking than from plural relationship styles. Roping in notions of polygamy from other cultures and applying them to polyamory in the UK is entirely inappropriate. Polyamory and polygamy are not the same thing. As you know, polyamory is also often called consensual non-monogamy - highlighting the 'consent' that is at the heart of the relationships."

The term 'polyamory' has not been academically defined, but there are various definitions floating around which you can find using the search engine of your choice. None of these definitions are 'the same as polygamy'. Other terms that may be interesting if you want to look into this further are ethical non-monogamy. If you're specifically wanting to find out more about the Philpotts, however, a search for 'polyamory' won't help you - you want to be looking at 'abusive relationships' and 'domestic violence'.

Because that's what we're talking about here. As is clear from the sentencing remarks, this was a highly abusive relationship.

One of the things I look out for when someone I've talked to has expressed interest in my relationship structure is that they don't end up doing it wrong. This can happen, particularly when the interested partner pressures their monogamous partner into a nominally polyamorous relationship because it sounds better than cheating, and they can persuade themselves that it's ethical. I've seen a lot of that. I've seen relationships where I don't know what side of the line to put them. It's hard to know. Especially from the outside.

However, a fairly good indicator of this particular brand of abusive relationship is when one partner says that they "went along with it because [they were] scared of losing [their] family and home". Which is what Mairead Philpott says happened when her husband first started his relationship with Lisa Willis. Lisa who, having decided to end her relationship with Mick, 'did not dare tell [him] she was leaving. She told Mairead Philpott that she was taking her children swimming.' That doesn't sound like a healthy relationship, polyamorous or not. Indeed, the complete statement from Mrs Justice Thirlwell makes grim reading, and it is clear that Philpott has an entirely dysfunctional and abusive relationship history.

What's so confusing about this BBC story, however, is that the author, Caroline Lowbridge, was clearly aware that the Philpotts' was not a normal relationship; earlier this week she wrote another piece for the BBC which outlined their abusive and controlling nature. While Lowbridge talked to Dossie Easton, it's not clear whether the author has read her seminal book, The Ethical Slut, or researched polyamory in any meaningful depth beyond recognising it as a buzzword for doing relationships differently.

Polyamory, when done right, is fundamentally different from the way in which people practice monogamous relationships. There are so many ways of thinking that are common in monogamous relationships that just don't make sense from a polyamorous perspective. Polyamory isn't just a way of getting to 'have' more people, because people are not possessions. It's a fundamentally new and different way of doing relationships, based on trust, on communication, and on consent. It's about rejecting the monogamous standard, and radically rethinking how you understand, make meaning of and practice relationships and commitment.

The Philpotts' house after the fire which killed six children. Photo: Getty

Fearless in the face of yarn, yet terrified of spiders, Charlie Hallam is a Sheffield blogger and activist. She can be found waffling about politics and yarn as @fearlessknits on Twitter.

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage