A Real Look At Consensual Non-Monogamy in the Black Community

I can remember watching Good Times, What’s Happening and The Cosby Show as a child and creating my concepts of healthy relationships from those images. Talk about relationship goals. The characters on these shows were happy, the kids were alright, and life was pretty drama free. These images could not have been further from what I was experiencing in real life. Don’t get me wrong, my life was good: two parents, four grandparents, aunts, and uncles and none of them were living like the Huxtables. Real life was so much juicier than must see TV and the reflections of real life that we see today on TV and social media — Sister Wives, Love & Hip Hop, Facebook!

Somewhere along the social and cultural timeline, relationships got real! No more Black & White and if Blacks were to function in this full-color society, we would no longer be able to “keep our business out of the streets.” It has become very evident, very quickly, that when it comes to non-monogamy, in an intelligent and non-dramatic manner, Black folks do.

Consensual Non-Monogamy Terms

Consensual non-monogamy (or open relationship) is an umbrella term that includes:

  • Polyamory/Polyandry (Poly) – Latin for many loves; polyamory describes the state of being in love or romantically involved with more than one person at the same time
  • Polyfidelity – A polyamorous relationship arrangement where all members are considered equal in the partnership and agree only to be sexually active with other members of that group
  • Swinging (LS/The Lifestyle) – Individuals and couples, gathering together in safe, sex-positive settings to engage in open and consensual sexual expression.

These are not limited to the many other “arrangements” made by individuals and couples participating in committed partnerships.

IMG: Sarah Mirk. My life. A quote from Stu Rasmussen in the nontraditional relationship advice book Sex from Scratch. Illustration credit: Molly Schaeffer. Flickr. CCBY 2.0

Black Americans are conditioned to see a successful relationship as “one man and one woman, ’till death do us part.” By osmosis, we acquired tools that are supposed to enable us to manage through relationship hardship and to overlook things that hurt or disrespected us. We should all be in relationships where the vow is “as life brings us close.” The traditional social convention would say that there is no way to be in satisfactory relationships with more than one man and one woman. However, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that it is possible. Love does not come with a set of rules and regulations. Today, couples are empowering themselves with the option to create the relationship/s that work best for everyone involved. What one of the options couples are exercising is consensual non-monogamy. Non-monogamy, as a relationship choice, is often frowned upon — especially in the Black community. It is seen as deceptive and threatening to the sanctity of marriage.

IMG: Sarah Mirk. Be more honest. A quote in the nontraditional relationship advice book Sex from Scratch. Flickr. CCBYSA 2.0

Black love is not an easy notion to comprehend. The passion and intensity of Black love exhibits itself through the most invigorating of highs, coupled with cavernous lows. Our DNA remembers the time when we had to hold on to our partner for our survival and protection. Love could not come first or be safely demonstrated, as our love was used against us, to control us. African-Americans, Black folks, have never known love without restriction. There was never a time in United States history until the Obamas moved into the White House, where Black love has been openly celebrated as a model for relationship success. So, it’s often difficult for Black couples to exhibit some of the more modern expressions of love and intimacy, without the fear of being judged. The explosion of social media brought to public consciousness how others were living and experiencing life. Small quiet pockets of individuals were able to come together and create kinship communities. Through community, grew visibility and visibility brought about pride. It’s no longer acceptable to lie and hide and hurt the people you love.

There are no actual statistics on how many Americans currently live in polyamorous relationships since the United  States Census does not request that information. Independent research shows that 1.2 – 2.4 million couples and individuals have admitted to trying non-monogamy as a relationship choice. This research also does not break couples and individuals down by race or age. So basically, there is no hard science behind how non-monogamy is playing a role in the culture of American relationships. But it can be said with a certainty that people of all ages and cultural backgrounds are unpacking and exploring what it means to be happy and to be in love. Non-monogamy is bringing personal happiness without the feeling or need to be ashamed of the source.

People who consider non-monogamy as their lifestyle are quick to inform that there are definite pros and cons to opening oneself and relationship/s to other individuals and personalities. Non-monogamy is not a game, and it should not be taken lightly. For those who identify as polyamorous, they believe that their love style choices lead them to a greater sense of family and community. They enjoy the larger social circles and feel that they thrive on sharing responsibilities with others. Open and honest communication, a more heightened sense of love and commitment and the ability to explore new levels of trust and understanding are also cited as benefits of choosing non-monogamy as a love style.

IMG: Sarah Mirk. Sex is more. A quote from writer Betty Dodson in the nontraditional relationship advice book Sex from Scratch. Illustration credit: Molly Schaeffer. Flickr. CCBY 2.0

So, what about the sex?

Well, sex is not necessarily synonymous with non-monogamy. Just as being married to one person does not guarantee that you will be having sex. Sex is but one function of any intimate relationship. And it is America’s obsession with how people interact in private that puts a black-eye on poly relationships. Many of us get stuck at swinging when discussing poly love styles. And there is a particular conversation to have about swinging. Swinging would be the most sexually promiscuous of the types. But that’s not the end of the swing story. Swinging comes with strict rules and etiquette around safe and responsible ‘sex play.’ Polyamory and polyfidelity both require varying levels of commitment to individuals and the group, whether or not all partners share sexual intimacy.

Most of us were raised to process any intimate relationship outside of our marriage or committed partnerships as infidelity (cheating). We are loyally following a particular set of relationship rules that don’t always speak to our needs and desires; independently or culturally. We continue to try to label the feelings we have to feel proud about our situation. Non-monogamous love styles exist and operate outside of the labels associated with a more traditional relationship paradigm. 

Which brings us to where we are today.

It’s become clear that we are going to have to build our oasis ourselves because no one else can tell us what’s right and good for us. Social media has been an awesome platform for mobilization and community building. The internet has brought the small pockets of this community from across the country and the world together and enabled us to combine our love and our knowledge.

IMG: Sarah Mirk. Love who you want. A quote from writer Wendy-O Matik in the nontraditional relationship advice book Sex from Scratch. Illustration credit: Molly Schaeffer. Flickr. CCBYSA 2.0

The takeaway…Black people are allowing ourselves to be ourselves. To live out loud and love who and how we want. If everyone else is allowed to express their love styles unapologetically then so can we. That said, non-monogamous relationships are not for everyone. The poly mindset can be nuanced and complex. Before launching into one of these or the other various love styles, it is critical that a realistic inventory is taken of the motivation for participation. Also, safeguards should be put in place just in case both partners don’t feel the same way about non-monogamy. Many people choose to connect with a mentor who can guide them through the feelings and emotions that come up when navigating a non-monogamous lifestyle. The internet also provides individuals with a safe way to explore the concept of non-monogamy without making any commitments. There isn’t much information specific to Black poly-sexuality. That’s what makes it so exciting to see the definition of Black love blossom in a way that lends focus to love and community-building.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION

Visit the Facebook group Black Folks Do: Poly/Lifestyle Relationships Forum to learn more about non-monogamous love styles.

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