There is a concept in sex-positive circles of “sex negativity.” Sex negativity is the notion that sex is intrinsically bad, dangerous, dirty, or wrong, unless it occurs within certain tightly prescribed conditions (for example, in marriage for procreation).

Sex positivity, by way of comparison, isn’t the idea that sex is always good, but rather the notion that it’s not intrinsically bad–there are many ‘right’ ways to have sex, and sex doesn’t need to be fenced in or constrained in order to be a positive force.

I’d like to propose a similar idea about relationships. I think it’s possible to have relationship-positive or relationship-negative views; that is, I think it’s possible to start from the premise that relationships, unless they’re abusive or otherwise destructive, are generally good things, and come in many shapes and sizes that can all be healthy…or, the reverse, that there’s only one ‘right’ way to have a relationship, and other kinds of relationships are intrinsically bad.

We live in a society that sanctions only one kind of romantic relationship: a monogamous cisgender man and a monogamous cisgender woman. Same-sex relationships are gaining ground, but it’s been an uphill struggle; there are still many people who label them ‘deviant’ and ‘perverse.’ A natural consequence of the notion that there’s one socially approved model of relationship is the idea that other types of relationships are abnormal or unhealthy, and view them with a skepticism rarely applied to “normal” relationships. This is the essence of “relationship negativity:” the idea that relationships are only healthy if they’re carefully kept within the constraints of what’s construed as “normal,” and any other form of relationship is to be viewed with distrust or even hostility.

Even in polyamory, it is possible to see some of this lingering relationship negativity. It manifests in ideas like an unwillingness to step too far from couple-oriented relationships, a desire to seek safety and comfort by preserving as much as possible of “normal” relationship structures, an idea that if people aren’t couple-centered in their approach to polyamory then the result will be anything-goes anarchy, and an idea that if the people involved in a relationship aren’t kept on a tight leash, there will be nothing to stop them from running around hooking up with everyone they meet.

I’m not trying to suggest that if a relationship that has some of the features of traditional relationships is what a person prefers, that means they harbor relationship negativity. Just as a person can be sex-positive and still prefer monogamous heterosexual missionary-position sex, a person can be in a mononormative relationship and still be relationship-positive. The idea of relationship negativity means seeing unconventional relationships as intrinsically bad, not just for you but for everyone, simply because they don’t resemble “normal” relationships.

Polyamory is not a “normal” way to do relationships. It benefits us as poly people, I think, to acknowledge that, and to be conscious of the fact that poly can be healthy and positive even when we let go of the trappings and structures of monogamy. We don’t need to be afraid that letting go of those last remnants of monogamy will plunge us into anarchy and despair. Our partners still want to take care of us, even when our relationships don’t follow the social script.


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