Stigma and Discrimination Against Non-Monogamous People Around the World
If you’re polyamorous or consensually non-monogamous, you’ve probably experienced or heard of someone being judged for how they love. It remains an ongoing issue globally that many polyam/CNM people are on the receiving end of stigma, discrimination, and prejudice. This can come from family members, colleagues and employers, friends and social connections, media, the legal and health professions, and sometimes even from within the broader CNM community.
Robert T. Muller wrote about this in Psychology Today, saying that “Between 26 and 43 percent of people who practice CNM report experiencing stigma, which may stem from assumptions of monogamy's normalcy.”
Assuming that monogamy is normal, that it’s ‘the way relationships are supposed to be’ can also lead to internalised judgement against ourselves, and complicated feelings of shame or uncertainty. In a powerful article titled Counseling the Polyamorous Client: Implications for Competent Practice, Adrianne L. Johnson sums up the difficulty of this: “Polyamorous individuals often feel that they need to prove to others that their lifestyle is viable (Falco, 1995) and not ‘deviant.’ This social isolation or pressure to justify their lifestyle contributes to feelings of invalidation, anger, and fear.”
Unsurprisingly, this can have flow-on effects in many ways, including in terms of mental health. It’s an extra difficulty, then, that many therapists haven’t questioned their assumptions around relationship dynamics and fall into the trap of thinking that any challenges a client has is because of their multiple relationships. This is why for many people it’s so important to find a therapist or counsellor who is either experienced with or understanding of polyamory.
The majority of this post will be quotes and links to various articles about discrimination - I’ve included the country the article is from/about, but many of these issues take place in countries all around the world.
(It’s important to acknowledge that it’s not all bad for polyamorists! As we wrote in our post Why Flags Matter (and Why Polyamory Needs a New One): "Those who identify as polyam/CNM - particularly those who are white, cisgender, straight, and male - are fortunate, and generally don’t face the same level of discrimination and violence perpetrated against BIPOC and the queer, trans, and broader LGBTQIA+ communities. That said, many polyamorists around the world do face stigma and discrimination, in a whole variety of areas.”)
Discrimination Around the World
Canada: “New research in the Canadian Medical Association Journal suggests that people who are polyamorous could face many negative experiences and stigma when pregnant or giving birth. This study analyzed 24 interviews of polyamorous people who had given birth or supported a pregnant partner, and found many similar experiences.” - Sara Kiley Watson
US: “Some people who come out as polyamorous find themselves marginalized, or even ostracized, from social groups that had previously accepted them. For others who come out as polyamorous, friendships that had lasted for years and appeared to be lifelong suddenly fade away or end abruptly in a flare of anger.” - Elisabeth Sheff
India: “Providing polyamorists in India avenues for engaging in modest legal challenges to existing laws is possible by including them as a protected group in ongoing efforts on equality and anti-discrimination bills. Polyamory need not feature as a separate group, instead redefining cohabitation to recognise more than one partner may be a first step in this direction. Finally, advocating a more rigorous judicial understanding of consent is a prerequisite for the task of including polyamory in the law.” - Dolashree K. Mysoor
US: “Many judges conclude, without supporting evidence, that people who engage in CNM are less moral, less stable, and less capable to care for children compared to monogamous people…Further, some family courts have misunderstood polyamorous relationships, many assuming that long-term committed plural relationships are equivalent to “wife-swapping” or casual sex-only swinging…Ignorance about polyamory fuels systematic discrimination towards these families.” - Polyamory Legal Advocacy Coalition
Australia: “If you're part of a Polyamorous relationship, you might not qualify under these definitions and additional legal advice [about Life Insurance policies] might be needed.” - Unusual Risk
US: Although people are a lot more open-minded than they once were, being polyamorous isn't always safe. For instance, the biggest legal challenge can be child custody, said Winston. "There has been, at least within the states, some really unfortunate precedents set for a grandparent or someone reporting parents as being unfit parents because they are polyamorous," she said.” - Lindsay Dodgson
US: “In legal terms, polyamorous people are unable to marry all their of partners: It is illegal throughout the United States to marry more than one person at a time. Somerville, Mass., is thought to be the first U.S. city to legally recognize polyamorous domestic partnerships, which it started doing in 2020.” - Suzannah Weiss
New Zealand: “A polyamorous ex-throuple fighting over how to split a valuable Auckland property have taken their battle to the Supreme Court. The court will determine whether the Family Court has any jurisdiction to determine relationship property claims for polyamorous relationships. In the first case of its kind in New Zealand, the High Court earlier ruled the Property Relationships Act (PRA) could not be applied to people in a multi-partner relationship.” - Melissa Nightingale
US: “For the first 15 years of the study, I was not aware of any families who retained custody of their children once their polyamory was exposed and challenged in court: The few poly families I spoke with or read about whose custody was challenged on the grounds of polyamory pretty much always lost custody of their kids.” - Elisabeth Sheff
New Zealand: “Polyamorous relationships appear to be falling into a grey area when it comes to granting residency visas. A couple has told the Herald their partnership visa was denied when it was found their relationship wasn't exclusive. This is despite being together several years at the time of making the application.” - Georgia O'Connor-Harding
US: “Since married partners rights' trump everyone else's, the non-married partners don't automatically have a say in end-of-life decisions, funeral arrangements, or inheritance. That's true for non-married monogamous relationships, too, but the problem can be exacerbated in polyamorous relationships where partners are not disclosed or acknowledged by family members.” - Simon Davis
Organisations Making Change
If you’re someone who has been judged or treated badly because of your relationship dynamics, please know you’re not alone. There are organisations working to change this! OPEN (US) is one); PLAC (US) is another; there’s CPAA (Canada); SPN (Netherlands) and many other groups, often running on a shoestring budget and a group of volunteers.
We at PolyamProud are one of them too, by working to bring people globally together to choose a flag to represent us. Have you signed up to vote? It takes place next month!
“We are Pioneers”: Polyamorists’ Stigma Management Strategies - Jessica M. Young (USA)
SA govt considers new marriage law that recognises women with multiple husbands - Fame Foundation (South Africa)
Is Three a Crowd? Polyamory and the Property Relationship Act - Cam Fountain (NZ)
Analysis of the Experiences of Polyamorists in Spain - Yolanda Rodríguez-Castro, Almudena García Manso, Rosana Martínez-Román, Francisco Xavier Aguiar-Fernández & Jose Manuel Peixoto Caldas (Spain)
The Polyamorous Childbearing and Birth Experiences Study (POLYBABES): a qualitative study of the health care experiences of polyamorous families during pregnancy and birth - Erika Arseneau, Samantha Landry and Elizabeth K. Darling (Canada)
Orientations and ‘Deviations’: Sexuality in Anti-Discrimination Law - Theodore Bennett (Australia)
An Assessment of Therapists Attitudes Towards Polyamorous People - Chelsea V. Randall (USA)