The first blog in this series explored four reasons why they are inevitable and five things to do about them. Responses to that blog enlightened me to the fact that I mean one thing when I say consent violations, but it has come to mean something else in other contexts. Readers pointed out that, for folks in the sex-positive social justice community, the term consent violations has come to mean rape. Given that updated meaning, this blog comes a little bit closer to the sex-positive social justice community meaning of consent violation, though even so takes a broader view than focusing solely on rape.
Personal Issues Implicate Community
The majority of broken relationship agreements in CNM are fairly minor and remain within the individual relationship because they affect only those directly involved. There is no need to involve community leaders in a discussion between partners about why one spent that $300 for a weekend getaway when they had already spent their dating budget allotment for the month. Violation of financial agreements between family members is a personal, private issue that needs no involvement with the CNM community at large.
It would become a community issue if this person who overspent their dating budget had a long history of manipulating partners into lending them money, cosigning on their credit cards or car loans, moving in with their partners and living for free, and then disappearing with jewelry and electronics. When someone repeatedly and egregiously abuses members of a given community, they will eventually get a bad reputation at minimum and risk expulsion or even legal action.
Intimate Partner Violence
Previously on this site, I have explained some of the reasons why intimate partner violence is less likely to happen in consensually non-monogamous relationships, and some ways that CNM could contribute to abuse when it is misused. For this blog, suffice to say that the extra surveillance and support of having multiple partners around to both witness and interfere with intimate partner violence among their partners, as well as the alternative that those other partners provide to the abusive partner, provides a buffer against abuse in many CNM relationships. Conversely, if a charismatic person builds a harem and uses groupthink to control them, that group could pressure individual members to accept unacceptable treatment because everyone else says it is OK or that the doubter is the problem, not the abuser.
Emotional abuse is generally more complicated and less clear-cut than violence, and probably more common in CNM because it is so slippery and can masquerade as relationship dynamics. How to tell when someone is simply upset and expressing anger versus being emotionally abusive can be difficult under the best of circumstances, and conflicting opinions from various partners can make it even more challenging to identify when a partner is being emotionally abusive. Some of the polyamorous people who have participated in my research have reported that being in a polyamorous relationship helped them to identify emotional abuse in their partnerships. Hearing from someone who witnessed an interaction that “I would not want to be treated that way” has helped several of my respondents to identify and ultimately disengage from ongoing emotional abuse in their lives. Unfortunately, group think and gaslighting can be especially potent in intimate groups like polyamorous relationships, and such dysfunction could escalate to serious emotional abuse when misused in CNM.
Polyamorous (and other sex and gender minority) communities have a range of responses to abuse in their midst, from disbelief to direct action.
Disbelief and Discomfort
As recent responses to the “Me Too” movement have indicated, people do not always believe others who come forward with allegations of abuse. Sometimes the accusers/victims/survivors are cast as confused and dramatic, and other times they are viewed as actively lying to pursue their own nefarious agenda.
More commonly, polyamorous community members become uncomfortable with the entire issue, are not sure what to say or how to deal with it. They may refuse to take a stance on what seems to be a private issue or even begin to avoid the people involved so they don’t have to deal with what might seem to them like drama or community politics.
Belief and Action
In other cases, polyamorous community members believe the accusers/survivors/victims and take action to deal with infractions. What complicates this is the amorphous nature of polyamorous communities, which often lack a clear leadership or much structure at all.
If the local poly community is cohesive enough, the power of informal gossip can be a significant force. When word gets out that someone in the community is abusive, it becomes much more difficult for them to get dates, invitations to events stop coming, and people start to avoid them. Unfortunately, sometimes this shunning encourages the predator to simply relocate to a different community that is not aware of their history, and the cycle can start again.
Most polyamorous communities have at most an informal structure of people who become community leaders by way of hosting community events. No one elects them or even identifies them as particularly adept at CNM. What makes them community leaders is being involved in their local scene long enough to create connections and having a house or land or other kind of venue to host community functions. The more events they host over time, the more deeply embedded those events become in the fabric of the local community. Sometimes community members will approach a host and report an infraction, and request that the host refrain from inviting or actively bar the offender to community events that the host organizes. This puts the defacto community leader in the position of deciding what is fair for the whole community (or at least the portion that attends their events, which in many places is the whole community because there is not that much specifically polyamorous social space). What happens then usually depends on how well the leader knows the people involved (both the accuser and the accused), if they hear both sides of the incident, and who they believe. Some outright ban the accused from attending, and others leave it up to the individuals to handle themselves. Those with strong social ties are likely to seek out community sentiment and possibly even investigate the accuser and accused’s reputations. Many are confused about the right thing to do and end up dealing with a complicated situation that they did not seek to create in the best way they can manage with the tools and information they have.
Some organizations dedicated to polyamorous or other sex and gender minorities have various procedures for incident reports and policies about how to manage allegations of consent violations. The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom has an online incident reporting and response mechanism that is primarily focused on larger community issues like police harassment, employment discrimination, and child custody, but also contains a link for domestic violence.
While neither the polyamory organization Loving More nor the loosely organized Polyamory Leadership Network have an incident response mechanism (to my knowledge), members of each group have informally collaborated to protect community members from known abusers. Specifically, when a serial abuser who had moved through several communities tried to join the Polyamory Professionals list hosted on the Loving More website, PLN members shared information and advocated for the offender to be removed from the list, disinvited from presenting at conferences, and banned from attending poly community functions so that community members would not be exposed to the offender.