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.