Brandy Jensen on the Mainstreaming of Polyamory

Writer Brandy Jensen joins co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan to talk about polyamory’s place in the contemporary imagination. Jensen discusses the connections between polyamory and politics, noting its links to queer community and its defiance of normative gender roles. She analyzes protections for the rights of multiple-partner relationships in Massachusetts, New York, and California. Jensen also considers the language of polyamory and how it has been portrayed in current and past literature, especially science fiction. She reads from her recent Yale Review article, “The Polycrisis.”

Check out video excerpts from our interviews at Lit Hub’s Virtual Book Channel, Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel, and our website. This episode of the podcast was produced by Anne Kniggendorf.

From the episode:

Whitney Terrell: Some of the terms that I associate with this are polysaturation, compersion, cuddle pile, right? And I wondered if you could talk to us a little bit about the language of polyamory and its importance, and what’s funny or not funny about it?

Brandy Jensen: Yeah, I mean, it is… I’ll just cop to the fact that as an adult, when you’re talking about sexual encounters, terms like “cuddle pile” are always going to, you know… I’m just gonna have a visceral reaction to stuff like that. But I mean, I agree that what’s appealing about polyamory is that these are people who are rethinking everything it means to be in a relationship. And so sometimes that’s going to require new language. And I think that’s both necessary and potentially quite beautiful. And also when we’re talking about embarrassing words that are associated with different relationship styles, traditional monogamy does not get off clean here, either. I am just as allergic to the term “hubby” as I am to the term “primary partner,” so there’s no end of cringe terminology that people in all sorts of different relationship dynamics are willing to use. 

But yeah, the importance of communication. Again, like a lot of things about polyamory, I find it both potentially beautiful and also potentially kind of exhausting. The joke about polyamorous people is that they end up talking about sex more than they end up having it, which I think is perhaps a little unfair, but does get at something true, which is [that] these are people who are committed to working out, amongst themselves, new ways of being with each other. And so that’s going to involve a lot of negotiation, that’s going to involve new words, new ways of talking about and doing things.

WT: And we’re talking about this from a media perspective, but you know, I have a very, very good friend, one of my college friends, who has been involved in this world for 20 years, 30 years, maybe. He’s really thinking about social change, right? And he’s smart and takes it very seriously. And to watch this movement, which everyone felt was super fringe—I mean, he was in a fraternity, and it’s not the kind of thing that fraternities sit around and do. Well, maybe in a different terrible way. I think his ideas are mostly, extremely well intentioned, and really refreshing, and I also got that sense from your piece. And also it seems like you’ve had that experience with some other friends who are involved in this same world.

BJ: Yeah, so since publishing this piece, I’ve had a number of people ask if I’m polyamorous. And my kind of stock answer at this point in time is that I’m not, but my boyfriend and his wife are. It’s not a thing that I’m coming to entirely from the outside, it’s not something that I personally take on as a massively important mantle of my identity. But I am both sympathetic to and have a lot of admiration for people who want to see if they can improve their lives, the way that they interact with other people, the way that they move through the world.

V.V. Ganeshananthan: It’s interesting, because I mean, what we’re talking about, I feel like you would find in any group of people working together to try to be better people, which seems like a lot of what’s going on. And some of the conversations that I hear about it, and also have been reading, and the New York Times piece, for example, quotes a person who says—this is a kind of long quote, but I’m going to read the whole thing, because I think it sort of sums up pretty nicely my question—”I hope this is a social movement. I hope people will feel more freedom about how they want to live and about pooling resources and living their best life. The structure of the nuclear family, the nuclear marriage, needs to shift. It’s really hard to afford a house. Some of us are thinking of moving into a place with four or five bedrooms, where eight or nine of us could live together. We could share the burden of bills, it’s just more realistic. And it would be a community space. We would hold events and gather and play and have this endless sleepover. I get to do this. I will have achieved something great, great emotionally and great in terms of social transformation.”

This piece also has… There must be four or five other people who use the word radical and talk about polyamory as a great manifestation of radical queer politics. People who talk about freedom. There’s a lot of big dreams, actually kind of big emotional dreams and moral dreams in that piece about that 20-person polycule, and I’m curious about your take on this quote and if the rise of polyamory can be understood to signal some kind of major social transformation, and what this means about our broader political culture, the fact that this is now kind of part of mainstream conversation. And then also kind of buried in that quote I feel like is a question about, what does polyamory have to do with how we’re thinking now, about the economic and political and social costs of living in this very-late stage, terrible capitalism?

BJ: Yeah. I think there’s an obvious link between the popularization of polyamory and women’s liberation; the fact that traditional marriage has just proven to be so dissatisfying for a lot of people—in particular, women—that people are unable to find happiness and a traditional version of what looked like a relationship previously. So, dissatisfaction with traditional relationships, and then also just the material conditions of life currently. Like, I think the most salient point of that quote is that we can’t afford a house. A lot of people are in that position, they can’t afford a house. And so pooling resources, living communally, that sort of thing is appealing, just purely on the economic factors. 

I think the most potent criticism of that, as a way of being radical, is that it’s fine if you and your friends get to have a sleepover, but to be truly radical is to try to agitate for a change in the material conditions that made that necessary in the first place. Right? That there is something that is a little bit self-involved, a little bit like it’s reproducing the problems of the nuclear family just with more people on a larger scale. Instead of having mom and dad and 2.5 kids who all get to live in a house together, now you’ve got 20 people of various forms of sexuality and gender expression living in a house together, that’s still not really doing much to address the reasons why nobody can afford to live in a house on their own. 

As I said in my piece, I think there’s a lot about polyamory that can be inherently radical. It’s a refusal of the conditions of the world as they are in a lot of ways, right? It’s a refusal of the scripts that we’re given growing up about what our relationships are supposed to look like, how we’re supposed to interact with people, how we’re supposed to be an adult. And that refusal, I think, has a lot of political promise. But it’s not enough. And I think, where a lot of the critiques of polyamory really are salient and correct, is when people sort of go there and no further and think: “It’s just enough for me and my 19 partners to have this endless sleepover together.”

Transcribed by Condensed and edited by Madelyn Valento. 



Brandy Jensen

“The Polycrisis” | Yale Review


More: A Memoir of Open Marriage by Molly Roden Winter • “On the Cover of New York: A Practical Guide to Polyamory,” by Priyanka Mantha | New York Magazine • “Lessons From a 20-Person Polycule: How they set boundaries, navigate jealousy, wingman their spouses and foster community.” by Daniel Bergner | The New York Times Magazine • “Polyamory, the Ruling Class’s Latest Fad,” by Tyler Austin Harper | The Atlantic • “Scenes from an Open Marriage,” by Jean Garnett | The Paris Review |June 29, 2022 • Oneida Community • Octavia Butler • N.K. Jemisin • Sally Rooney • American Poly: A History by Christopher Gleason • Couplets: A Love Story by Maggie Millner

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