Why Do We Need Labels?
The question of whether or not labels are useful or limiting comes up regularly - and truthfully, they can be both, either, or neither. A lot depends on whether the label is something you’ve chosen for yourself, or if it’s been affixed to you by another person, group, or community. Labels we choose for ourselves can be powerful! Labels that someone else attaches to us can, sometimes, be awful.
So, why do we even need labels at all?
Shae Collins, in her post ‘Special Snowflake’ My Ass: Why Identity Labels Matter, nails the answer on the head: “Time and again, the question is raised: Why do people need all of these labels? My answer to this is simple: Because these labels are our identities. They describe our cultures, communities, genders, sexual and romantic orientations, bodies, and/or our additional experiences with privilege and oppression. They are crucial for anyone whose experience isn’t positioned as the default in our society.”
Labels give us the words we need to self identify; to describe relationships and connections; and to find our communities and places to belong. ‘Polyamorous’ is a self-identifier label, as is ‘open’, or ‘monogamish’, or ‘solo polyam’. ‘Metamour’ is one label used to describe a relationship with another, as is ‘primary’ or ‘anchor partner’ or ‘snuggle buddy’. And as for community labels? Well, ‘polyamorists’ is one label, with some others being ‘consensual non-monogamists’ or ‘swingers’ or ‘relationship anarchists’.
There can be a lot of nuance within the world of labels. Some, like ‘non-monogamous’ serve as umbrella terms and can have many other labels which are encompassed by it (‘queer’ is another umbrella term). Some labels also have complicated histories, where some people feel included and comfortable with it, while others recall when it was used as a slur or a way to subjugate.
Nicole M. Atkins described this well, in her post about how labels help shape communities: “Not all labels are going to be agreeable to an entire population of people, and many definitions evolve over time. It’s important to remember, however, that labels are generated for the sake of creating a sense of community, of solidarity.”
Community and solidarity is a big part of the reason PolyamProud feels that a new flag matters so much: there’s stigma and discrimination against consensually non-monogamous people in so many ways around the world. There’s also more awareness in general populations that polyamory is a thing that exists - it’s not as common these days for a newspaper to stop and define the term before getting into the meat of their article. And, for many people, there’s more openness and pride in this part of their identity - one they’re not ashamed of, or desirous of hiding. For them it’s a label that they want to be seen to have.
There’s also the matter of intersectionality. Within the broader consensual non-monogamy community you’ll often find people who also hold marginalised gender, sexuality, race, and religious labels. As an example, someone might be polyamorous, asexual, aroromantic, kinky, queer, trans, and indigenous. Someone else might be open, pansexual, aromantic, cis, intersex. And yet another might be solo-polyam, demisexual, switch, and enby. Being able to choose for ourselves the labels that we feel describe us best is an empowering act, quite different from feeling stuck with labels that media, health professionals, or academics sometimes choose for us.
A 2021 paper from Meridian in Australia, about the use of inclusive group identity labels, says: “Group identity labels can be empowering when they are accurate and identity-confirming because they enable community-building and shared efforts for advocacy. Using group identity labels also enables people of diverse sexualities, genders, bodies, and relationships to communicate their solidarity and pride in their communities and identities.”
It also goes on to say: “People in diverse relationships and of diverse romantic orientations face stigma and discrimination as a consequence of the policing of social norms related to monogamy, with research showing that negative perceptions of people in diverse or consensually non-monogamous relationships were common and that people in diverse relationships faced being dehumanised. Conversely, studies have also found that people in consensually non-monogamous relationships develop positive social identities around this aspect of their lives. Given the way that Western culture strongly favours strict monogamy, such identities are both individually and politically important in terms of building positive self-regard and generating resistance to discrimination.” (Emphasis added)
No matter what label you choose to apply to yourself, if you’re reading this post then there’s a strong likelihood that you have an interest in non-monogamy. And if so, we’d really like you to sign up to vote for a new polyamory/consensual non-monogamy pride flag! It takes just a few seconds, and then you’re ready to vote in November, along with more than 20,000 other people from around the world.
More reading about labels
Red Flags in Polyamory: Refusing Labels - Thomas H. Brand