Consensual non-monogamies, where partners agree to pursue other romantic or sexual relationships, have gained greater visibility with the advent of online communication tools. How is the diffusion of social network sites linked to the spread of consensual non-monogamous relationships? This study is based on the analysis of 22 semi-structured interviews with people who define themselves as “polyamorous” and are active members of the two biggest polyamory groups on Facebook in Italy.
The results suggest that people come to the decision to engage in non-monogamous relationships before they join online groups dedicated to this topic. Moreover, specific online groups do not constitute a privileged base from which to recruit new romantic or sexual partners. However, the availability of shared online spaces is important for “giving things a name”, making it easier to share experiences with other group members and more generally off-line, sometimes helping in coming out.
Social network sites and social ties
The transformation of intimacy in the network society
Research question and method
Discussion and conclusion
The aim of this work is to establish the connection between two trends that are features of contemporary Western societies. First, the proliferation of social network sites (SNSs) and the online communication tools associated with these (boyd and Ellison, 2007); social network sites are widely regarded as extraordinary tools for organising and managing weak ties, whereas less attention has been paid to their influence on strong ties (Chen, 2013). Second, in contemporary societies, emotional, romantic or sexual relationships have opened up towards forms of “pure relationships” based on freedom for the partners (Giddens, 1992); such freedom sometimes leads to relationship configurations that differ from the traditional monogamous, heterosexual relationship based on exclusivity. This study focuses in particular on consensual non-monogamies (CNM) (Conley, et al., 2017) as examples that come close to the ideal of a “pure relationship” as outlined by Anthony Giddens.
The following two sections of this paper provide a short overview of these two phenomena: the diffusion of social network sites in the management of our weak and strong ties; and the diffusion of types of intimate relationships other than the exclusive couple, including a specific form of consensual non-monogamy (polyamory). Section 4 presents the methodology used and its limits. The research question concerns the possible causal link between social network sites and consensual non-monogamies, the actual use of online platforms as bases for potential new strong ties, and the off-line consequences of openness or closure towards the outside world. Section 5 sets out the results of the analysis of 22 semi-structured interviews with polyamorous people who are members of the biggest Italian Facebook groups dedicated to consensual non-monogamies. Lastly, the final discussion provides a summary of the results that emerged and attempts to provide some answers to the previously formulated research questions. The implications for possible future developments are also discussed.
Social network sites and social ties
A social network like Facebook has more than two billion users, each of whom is connected with an average of around 200 “friends”: what “sort” of relationships are these, and what functions do they serve? The classical theory on the “strength of weak ties” (Granovetter, 1973) has found renewed support in recent years. Social network sites appear above all to be an extraordinary tool for retrieving, expanding and organising our weak ties: old school friends (indeed, Facebook was set up in 2004, at Harvard University, for that specific purpose), but also work colleagues, distant relatives and, of course, friends of friends: typical SNS ties are weak, but valuable in that they bridge different social circles (Ellison, et al., 2014).
Therefore, whereas the link between social networks and weak ties is sound and well established, that between social networks and strong ties is still largely unexplored and, at least prima facie, improbable. There are in fact several factors that even indicate an erosion of strong ties: first, the old concept of media richness, based on the intrinsic limitation of the bandwidth of online communication, appears to make the latter better suited to transient or superficial relationships (which is what typical “friends” on Facebook are) rather than profound and intimate ones. Second, simply by increasing the number of weak ties, SNSs might automatically mean less time is spent on nurturing and maintaining strong ties, within a framework where time is a limited and non-expandable resource.
On this specific aspect, the currently available literature has often found new technologies to have few positive “effects”, in part upholding a commonplace view that excessive use of SNSs is a threat to the stability of partnerships, marriage and family relationships. It has thus been held that even the mere use of SNSs interferes with romantic relationships and that frequent use is significantly correlated with a low level of commitment in the relationship, greater dissatisfaction and a higher risk of divorce (Abbasi, 2019). Or that an active presence on Facebook constitutes a temptation for physical or emotional unfaithfulness, and that adding ex-partners as “friends” can be a cause of conflict or jealousy which are at times irrecoverable (Clayton, 2013). It is reasonable to suspect that such studies have sometimes confused cause and effect. Other studies (Marshall, et al., 2013) have demonstrated, for example, that in couples, jealousy “triggered by Facebook” is actually caused by an anxious attachment style that has nothing directly to do with specific technological platforms. Some recent studies (Chen, 2013; Vriens and van Ingen, 2017) have reported that the progressive and very strong integration of social network sites into our ordinary everyday practices is also improving the quality, intensity and nature of our strong ties, especially romantic, sentimental and sexual relationships.
I do not intend to contribute to the debate “for” or “against” social network sites, which I consider, all in all, of little use and naively exposed to the risk of technological determinism according to which these networks are independent, autonomous “causes” of social change. Instead, starting from the complex transformation of how we manage our social relationships, I will attempt to investigate how the diffusion of SNSs responds to a specific demand for strong, bonding, social relationships, in the direction of what Giddens (1992) described using the concept of “pure relationship”. In this study I shall not consider certain albeit interesting forms of “connected intimacy”, such as deep friendships cultivated online (Chambers, 2017; Farci, et al., 2017). I shall, instead, concentrate on a very specific type of intimate relationship: consensual non-monogamies, which are particularly appropriate for investigating the ambivalent potentials offered by social network sites for both establishing new social relationships and deepening existing ones (Chen, 2013), and for cultivating non-conventional intimate relationship structures, strongly based on a free and revocable mutual decision.
The transformation of intimacy in the network society
Modern society has given us an increasing amount of freedom to make decisions about our lives, exposing us, in exchange, to a feeling of precariousness, risk and uncertainty (Beck, 1992). These changes also have a huge impact on intimate relationships. The traditional marriage model that became established in previous centuries was actually based on an instrumental exchange, through which the man offered the woman financial and social security in exchange for housework, sex and parental care (Mullan, 1984). The romantic idea of marriage based on reciprocal and renegotiable love between two free individuals is thus fairly recent (Coontz, 2006), and in many Western countries divorce was only established as a civil right a few decades ago.
Within this transformation, love has been described as “chaotic” (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 1995) or “liquid” (Bauman, 2003) as the result of a complex set of fluid and reversible individual choices. Globalisation has broadened the scope for choice even further, by putting us in contact with different cultures, religions, values, traditions and expectations. This “transformation of intimacy” leads to the exploration of “pure relationships” (Giddens, 1992), no longer based on mutual convenience, but rather on mutual trust, respect between equals and deep communication. Moving towards a “pure relationship” means abandoning the security provided by an indissoluble marriage contract in which the roles are stable and defined a priori, and venturing out into a sea of uncertainties where the only thing that really ties us to the other person is a feeling of affinity or love in the here and now.
Although the theoretical concept of “pure relationship” has been questioned by critical feminism (Jamieson, 1999), online communication seem to provide an appropriate environment for the formation of relationships based on the progressive discovery of real affinities that are shared (Henderson and Gilding, 2004) and it is therefore no coincidence that in recent years there has been a surge in the percentage of couples who have met through the Internet (Gunter, 2013; Hogan, et al., 2011).
Alongside the great success of online dating sites that foster the establishment of more or less traditional romances, social network sites also make it possible to create protected environments where specific social niches can interact. SNSs have proved to be an extraordinary means of expression for the contemporary transformation of intimacy: new communication technologies are in fact also able to support the development of intimate relationships that differ greatly from the romantic ideal of the monogamous heterosexual couple. These “new intimacies” (Attwood, et al., 2017) appear at the intersection of physical bodies, “pure” or post-romantic relationships and communication technology. They include, for instance, queer relationships and cultures, gender identities that do not fall exclusively within the male/female categories (people who are gender fluid or intersex), sexual orientations that add numerous options to the basic hetero/homosexual scale (not just bisexuality, but also pansexuality, demisexuality or asexuality), or practices and behaviours that have only recently been downgraded from pathologies to paraphilias (such as BDSM and voyeurism).
This raises the question of how the availability of online spaces for collective reflexivity, including on sector-specific or niche issues, is linked to the success in contemporary societies of relationship styles that are passionately and freely chosen. As such, they come close to the “pure relationships” theorised by Giddens, and also break openly away from the standard form of traditional monogamy. The umbrella term “consensual non-monogamies” (CNM) is increasingly used in the literature to refer to relationships where all the people involved openly allow each other to have other concurrent romantic, emotional or sexual relationships. Consensual non-monogamies are referred to in the plural as they comprise several forms and modalities (Conley, et al., 2017; Muise, et al., 2019). Of course some of these forms of intimacy are not new, as the alternatives to monogamy have always existed (Barash and Lipton, 2001). In these cases, it is therefore more a question of visibility and legitimacy, than of emergence.
In the following pages, mainly for methodological reasons that will be explained later, I shall focus in particular on one specific form of consensual non-monogamy: polyamory. According to the most recent dictionaries and Wikipedia, the definition of polyamory that is generally accepted by those directly involved and frequently used on online information pages managed by the various polyamory activist groups is: “The practice, possibility or ability of having more than one sexual loving relationship at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved”. Apart from being a relationship model, polyamory is not without a strong politically radical critique of capitalist and patriarchal ideologies and gender inequality (Haritaworn, et al., 2006), but this crucial issue goes beyond the specific and limited scope of this work. Readers interested in this topic in more theoretical terms, can refer to a now vast specialized literature on the social construction of genres, sex and relationships, from the theory of performativity (Butler, 1990) to queer studies (Jagose, 1996).
Research question and method
The premises discussed earlier can be summarised in two key points:
- social network services have become increasingly popular and pervasive and strongly influence our everyday social relationships, both at the level of weak ties or mere acquaintances, and at that of strong, intimate and deep ties;
- contemporary society is characterised by the transformation of intimacy towards relationships that are freely chosen, revocable and diversified with respect to the traditional heterosexual monogamous couple; consensual non-monogamies, including polyamory, are a significant example of relationships of this type.
The research questions used to guide the empirical part of this study (which will be illustrated in full details later) will explore the ways in which the two premises are linked. In general, and bearing in mind that the first descriptions of the above-mentioned transformation of intimacy predate the widespread diffusion of social networks, to what extent can the latter be regarded as important factors for further developments in this direction?
To answer this question, 22 semi-structured focussed interviews were conducted with individuals who defined themselves as “polyamorous” and regularly frequented at least one of the two biggest Italian Facebook groups dedicated to polyamory. I decided to focus my attention on polyamory as this is the form of consensual non-monogamy that most strongly expresses a demand for public legitimation, social acceptance and removal of the stigma (Hutzler, et al., 2016) currently associated with it. Polyamory has inspired a social movement of activists who proudly call for visibility and public recognition, following themes and processes not unlike those used in the past by the better known LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisex, Transgender) movement, with which it is increasingly combined. Methodologically, all this facilitated access to the field and made it possible to include interviewees based on their self-definition as polyamorous, both of which would have been much more difficult had I chosen to consider other forms of consensual non-monogamy, such as swinging, which is mainly banished to the shadows of private clubs, with a poor and fragmented internal communication network and an identity still claimed by few and, on the contrary, often a carefully guarded secret.
The two biggest Italian Facebook polyamory groups are “Poliamore e altre non-monogamie etiche: discussione, confronto e supporto”, which has some 3,800 members, and “Policome: gruppo di confronto e supporto sul poliamore”, with around 3,400 members. Many people are members of both groups; an analysis of the complex historical reasons that led to the creation of two separate groups is beyond the scope of this work (in October 2019 the first group closed). A preliminary exploratory study found the use of these two groups to be appropriate and exhaustive: practically all online spaces dedicated to similar topics (Web sites, discussion groups, forums, newsgroups, blogs) set up previously and especially between the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium, have gradually been abandoned and converged into services offered by Facebook. Most of the local activist groups in various large Italian cities, which regularly organise face-to-face meetings and debates, were also established following the creation of a first local group on Facebook, which in turn was also usually formed as a branch of the two large national groups. In general, the “Italian polyamorous community” was originally established on Facebook (November 2009 saw the birth of the first group “Poliamore Italia Polyamory Italy”, which later changed its name to “Poliamore e altre non-monogamie etiche”) and only later consciously progressed off-line. The first regular face-to-face meetings were held in 2012 in Milan, Bologna and Rome.
The people to be interviewed were included using a theoretical sampling strategy based on two fundamental criteria: subjects had to define themselves as “polyamorous” and had to be members of at least one of the aforesaid Facebook groups. Moreover, subjects were included progressively in order to represent different gender identities, age groups and geographical regions of origin. No new interviewees were recruited when the amount of new information provided by each new interview was reduced to a minimum.
The interviews were conducted in December 2018 and January 2019 after a long period (more than one year) of participant observation both online in the previously mentioned Facebook groups and off-line during some of the regular face-to-face meetings for discussion and debate. Participant observation was an opportunity to familiarise myself with the field, prepare the framework for the interviews and identify possible people to be contacted.
The 22 interviews were conducted with nine women, eight men and four people who did not identify with either gender, aged between 23 and 56 years (mean = 37.4, SD 9.76), living in southern (n=5), central (n=7) and northern (n=9) Italy (the different regions of Italy have somewhat different cultures in terms of the desirability and social approval of non-standard romantic relationships and practices).
The interviews were accompanied by a systematic monitoring of spontaneous public discussions conducted within the two Facebook groups in question, some of which addressed topics very closely associated with the research questions formulated in this study. This activity provided additional empirical evidence to support and confirm the findings that emerged from the interviews. This permitted triangulation of data (Denzin and Lincoln, 1994) and provided greater robustness of the results, which are set out in the next section.
The decision to use semi-structured interviews (Ayres, 2008; Galletta, 2013) for data collection appeared to be the best compromise between the requirements for quality, detail, conciseness and specificity of the research questions. All of the interviews were recorded, transcribed and subsequently analysed using Dedoose, a software tool for use in mixed methods social research (Dedoose, 2018). All names in fragments cited in the following section have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved. Before being interviewed by a research assistant, each participant was given summary information about the study and the name and e-mail address of the principal investigator, who they were able to contact for any additional details.
The methodology in this work does have some limitations. First, the small number of people who were interviewed: just 22. However, the data gathered through these interviews were entirely consistent with hundreds of spontaneous discussions observed online directly in the Facebook groups in question, during a long period of participant observation that preceded, accompanied and followed the interviews.
Second, this study concerns the two biggest Facebook groups dedicated to consensual non-monogamies in Italy. Italy is a country with strong Catholic traditions, with a culture of romantic and sexual relationships still firmly based on the normative ideal of the heterosexual, monogamous couple. For that reason, the results set out in this study might be very specific and could differ from those reported in other countries and other sociocultural contexts.
Online communication spaces are an important opportunity for discussion and debate, especially about delicate issues that cannot easily be addressed in more casual conversations at home or at the workplace. The main reason why people join Facebook groups dedicated to polyamory and other consensual non-monogamies is in fact to share their views in a protected environment, where they can express themselves freely without fear of being judged. Sharing a certain vision of relationships also to a large extent involves sharing certain underlying values, such as personal liberty, gender justice, respecting differences, the willingness to work on jealousy. The groups thus act as a “home” that attracts people from around the country who already feel inclined towards this relationship style. All the people who were interviewed were practically unanimous in stating that they had their first doubts about monogamous relationships before they joined the groups, and some right from their first experiences during adolescence.
Well, eh ... I realised that I could love more than one person simultaneously many years ago, when I was about 19 ... But then for many years I thought I was a rare breed, I thought it was me who was wrong ... and I’ve only recently found out that there are ... groups of polyamorous people, non-monogamous people, so ... I’m talking about, I don’t know, three years ago, four years ago at the most. So I decided to join a few of these groups, no, you know ... the need to belong. [Sergio, M, 34]
In the experiences of the interviewees, the online environment does not “convert” people, but rather supports and strengthens a vision of relationships that in certain cases was originally believed to be strange, wrong or even crazy:
I don’t remember having had any precise expectations, perhaps because at first I was simply looking for people who could ... I mean not give me an answer, not really answer, maybe confirm some of my things, basically that I wasn’t mad ... I was fairly sure I wasn’t, but, all the same, it’s reassuring to hear it from someone else, so yes, I might have been looking for reassurance in this way ... And I was satisfied, I mean, if that’s my expectation, yes, I’ve found it helpful. [Giovanni, M, 35]
The “confirmatory” function of the online groups paints a picture in which social networks do not have much power to make people change their ideas. Rather, what groups provide is the shared legitimation of personal growth and development processes that had already begun previously in everyday life:
It’s my real-life experiences that have made me reflect and possibly change some of my perspectives, along the way and then what might happen is that I find myself sharing the same things with other people. But you recognise this retrospectively, no? Because, for example, it’s very different when I speak with someone in person, so in that case yes. But posts to Facebook groups are so ... I mean, they’re so aseptic, they’re remote, so that, thinking about it, now I realise though that they don’t have the same importance, the same impact as a discussion with a real person in flesh and blood, who talks to me about this experience, so if — if I look, it’s more about a retrospective recognition than not having any influence. [Marisa, F, 45]
In a socio-technical environment where communication is still almost exclusively based on text, sharing and exchanging views with others can also mean learning to give a name to something that until then had never had one. The “standard relational vocabulary” available to us and which we learned as children envisages a clear-cut distinction between “friends” and “lovers” and the possibility of having one “partner” at a time. Departing from the traditional monogamous relationship model also means having to invent new terms that can be used to identify feelings and communicate these to others using shared definitions. Simply coming across the word “polyamory” can thus represent a moment of growth and awareness:
No, because I didn’t even know what, I mean for me it was like ... I mean, it’s like ... I mean, I don’t know, I’ve known I was bisexual ever since I was a small child, and knew what the term meant, but I didn’t know anything ... of what I know now about LGBT issues, OK? So although the idea might have flashed more or less consciously through my mind, at a certain point, anyway, I didn’t even know it existed, I mean, at most I’d heard about free love in 1968 ... so where — I couldn’t just invent it for myself ... until someone gave me a name for it ... do you see? [Paola, F, 32]
All of the interviewees first came across the term “polyamory” when or around the time they joined the respective Facebook groups, often as the result of a search on Google and in response to a specific need for greater clarity about what had, until then, just been confused feelings and emotions not shared with others:
I mean, I had ... a bit of theory, which I’d invented a bit, in that I didn’t know ... that I didn’t even know the word existed, until I found it on the Internet, and so I didn’t ... hum, I hadn’t read anything, nothing, so everything that I thought was basically what I’d worked out for myself. Instead sharing views has been very important. [Vincenzo, M, 56]
One important function of these online groups is thus that of giving things a name. By learning to call them by name, people can share their own experiences and feelings, in a climate of trust and solidarity that is sometimes denied in offline life. This can then give rise to processes of collective reflection, that would not be possible elsewhere, because small local groups would never have been able to achieve the critical mass required to activate them. This is the basis for the establishment and recognition of a community, that is finding its place in the already variegated LGBT archipelago.
The online groups host theoretical discussions on the ethics and philosophy of consensual non-monogamies, but often members also share their personal experiences, both joyful and tragic. Real-life stories intersect and the most active members become known and liked (or hated), networks are built and sometimes there are also opportunities for off-line meetings.
In a social environment like this, it is normal to expect love stories to develop too. Since consensual non-monogamies are not a widespread relationship model, it is fairly hard to come across partners willing to engage in this type of relationship in everyday life. Online groups specifically dedicated to these issues could therefore also appear to be very suitable as places for finding potential new partners. On the contrary, this actually occurs relatively infrequently:
[Interviewer, speaking about acquaintances that have gone on to become intimate or romantic relationships] But have you ever met people through Facebook polyamory groups?
Eh, no. I’ve never met anyone in the groups. Somebody contacted me. A couple of people, actually. But it ended there, we wrote to each other a little, but they were all people, who weren’t actually from near to where I live, so ... And so that was it. [Lucia, F, 24]
Aside from friendships, or general acquaintances, or cooperation on specific projects, romantic relationships between people who originally met through these online groups are somewhat rare. There are probably a number of reasons for this: perhaps a general difficulty in changing the tune of communication and moving away from public conversations, even about intimate topics, to a more personal and private level of engagement.
Eh, meeting interesting people online, yes ... in a chat, if someone says something that interests me, you can usually tell ... more things come out ... there’s a lot of ... I don’t know, recognition, you really do a lot ... you know, you get quite close when you frequent social networks, it really is like a square, where you get to know one another ... and it resonates. But, well ... A meeting that eventually led to an erotic-romantic relationship, one that ... from online to real life I don’t think that’s ever happened ... alas, unfortunately ... I’d really like to fill this ... hum, gap... [laughing] [Marta, F, 44]
In addition, it is important to underline that taking part in these groups with the precise aim of finding new partners is explicitly and strongly discouraged, with a force that often takes new members by surprise. The official rules of both groups formally prohibit any behaviour directed towards dating, and punish offenders by banning or expelling them from the group. Behaviour directed towards dating includes sending unsolicited private messages to other group members and even private “friend” requests on Facebook, which must first be formulated in public.
Look, above all I thought I’d be able to meet people, no, because as I told you, more or less, I only meet monogamous girls ... and so then of course there are problems, so I thought: “Well, in a polyamorous community, if I meet people who practice polyamory then it’s more likely that if a relationship starts ... it might go better, precisely for that reason”. But as soon as I joined the groups, I found out instead, [clears throat] because there are mostly lots of guys who are probably not even interested in the subject of polyamory, but simply looking for women, girls, who they maybe think are more likely to have sex ... they’re called “sharks” in this circle. Therefore, normal polyamory groups are discussion groups where no form of dating is allowed ... paradoxically, if you see someone you like and all you do is send him a friend request without asking him first, even that could be something, eh, serious enough to be — to have to inform the administrators and you could be punished for doing something like that. [Sergio, M, 34]
These rules seem excessive to some members and are therefore regularly the subject of debate, but the administrators and most members justify such strong repressive measures to prevent dating within the groups, above all to maintain a protected and free environment for discussion and debate that is not aimed at fostering sexual encounters. Prejudice towards people who declare themselves open to non-exclusive relationships includes the idea that they are automatically available for easy sexual encounters. Such prejudice is often shown by people (men more often than women) who are monogamous but temporarily without a sexual partner, who therefore join groups dedicated to non-monogamies solely for the purpose of finding easy prey and not for any real desire to engage in discussions.
The main channel of recruitment for polyamorous relationships seems instead to be that of traditional off-line situations (events, parties, bars, clubs). In the same way as for the general population, there are also general online dating platforms:
[Interviewer] OK while, instead, as regards other polyamorous or, in any case, non-monogamous relationships you’re engaged in ... or have had in the past: how many of these people did you meet online — through groups or dating sites — and how many in person, I mean, initially in person?
Eh, well then ... let’s say, of the current relationships we were talking about before: I met one in person but then let’s say we kept in close contact through Facebook, groups — let’s say — but also through direct friendship — let’s say — privately, before we started dating, going out together ... So I didn’t meet her online but I think the... like... the social network tool was fundamental, to strengthen the relationship and make it a bit more intimate ... whereas the other was a relationship with someone I met on Tinder, so I’d say, with all likelihood, I wouldn’t have met her otherwise. Hum ... and then I’ve had others — yes, I mean let’s say that for some years now most of the people I’ve dated I met on Tinder. [Giovanni, M, 35]
As widely reported by all of the most recent studies on computer-mediated communication, there is an increasing tendency for the online dimension (social networks, dating apps, etc.) and the off-line one to meet and intersect (Rainie and Wellman, 2012). In our everyday lives we are now “always on” and spend our evenings at the bar with our friends while, at the same time, we answer instant messages sent to us on our smartphones by other people (or even by the same people sitting with us at the same table). The statements gathered through the interviews confirm this integration between the different means and channels at our disposal for meeting and getting to know possible new partners:
[talking about a partner] We met, in actual fact, eh, we both frequent the BDSM scene, and we’d already seen each other there. But we’d never spoken, I mean, we’d seen each other. Then our paths crossed on Tinder, we recognised one another and at that point we started speaking; and then very soon afterwards we met face-to-face, with the assurance that it was someone I’d already met in real life, so to say. And anyhow we clearly had some interests in common, we very quickly moved on to a real-life meeting. But Tinder was the chance to engage in a private conversation, something that we’d never done when our paths crossed in real life. [Marisa, F, 45]
Polyamory and consensual non-monogamies still carry a social stigma that sometimes causes people to close up to the outside world. Considering the same categories used by the LGBT community, polyamorous people also speak about coming out to refer to the moment, which for many is difficult and painful, when they reveal their condition to those who did not know (family members, friends, acquaintances). As mentioned at the beginning of this paper, when talking about consensual non-monogamies it is more appropriate to refer to a choice rather than a condition (even though there is still some controversy on this point within the polyamorous community). In any case, fear of the possible negative social consequences makes coming out a difficult moment. Men are mainly afraid of being accused of not wanting or of not being able to cope with a “normal” serious and deep relationship, of not being reliable or worthy of trust. In addition to this, women are also sometimes exposed to slut-shaming, when they are considered too sexually uninhibited and so less worthy of respect.
In view of such problems, specific online discussion spaces appear to offer tools that make it easier to talk about consensual non-monogamies even outside the community. For some, they provide greater overall clarity on the ways, including the terminology, that can be used to establish and address the issue:
But it is certainly also true that having someone you can talk about it with like something normal has convinced me that this also makes it easier to open up, no, meaning that it makes me more aware, clearer, about my position with respect to these issues ... and so when necessary, if I wanted to talk about it with someone, even outside the community, it would be easier to do so, when I decided to. Before I came into contact with the polyamorous community I had some ideas, I had some ... but it was all really chaotic stuff, in relation to which I didn’t know where I stood, so I wouldn’t have known how to talk about it. [Marisa, F, 45]
For others, the protected online space becomes a launching pad that gives them courage to face the outside world. For instance, voluntarily renouncing the anonymity that is guaranteed through the use of a nickname is a way of showing that one is proud to belong to a minority group. The process in this case is exactly the same as the experiences of coming out in the LGBT world, and the link between the two scenes is sometimes explicitly recognised:
For a time I was a silent user, in that I wrote a couple of things once a year, because since I had an official profile I was afraid of exposing myself. Then instead practically since last year I have eventually managed to overcome that fear, now I sometimes take part, I write, so, always with my real name ... And so let’s say that from a poly perspective it’s a bit as if I’d come out, let’s say, no? Before, instead, I was more ... I tried not to expose myself too much, because I was afraid that maybe someone might join those groups and see my name and surname ... And then above all it helped me to see other people who weren’t hiding behind a nickname. But they had no problem using their name and surname. Because it helped me realise that I could come out as poly too, not only as bisexual. [Paola, F, 32]
Generally, the interviewees reported that following their experience as members of Facebook polyamory groups, their willingness to open up to the outside world and uphold their non-monogamous relationship model increased in those cases where it was not already sufficiently present. People who were not afraid to speak openly and habitually about these issues even before they joined the groups, reported that they had improved their ability to discuss the topic clearly and with greater overall clarity. None of the interviewees reported that the availability of online discussion spaces had caused them to close up more towards the outside world, or withdraw into the community of peers.
Discussion and conclusion
Going back to the research questions set out earlier, I shall now summarise the results of this work and attempt to provide some answers.
RQ1: How important is the availability of online spaces for reflexivity and debate, in changing or strengthening people’s relational orientation and the associated values towards non-normative relationships? Do people who decide to experiment with consensual non-monogamy use dedicated online spaces in a targeted and instrumental manner to seek comfort and support after coming to that decision off-line, or do they reach that decision and gain awareness directly online, after coming into contact more or less randomly with the respective specific niche groups on social networks? More in general, concerning this specific aspect, do social networks push or follow the processes of personal growth and self-awareness (or, more probably, do they combine these two things, and in what proportion)?
The interviewees declared themselves polyamorous and so do not conform to the traditional model of relationships founded on monogamy and sexual exclusivity. However, practically all of them had come to this conclusion before joining the Facebook groups dedicated to consensual non-monogamies. Joining the online groups was the outcome of a deliberate and sometimes persistent search for confirmation of something they already felt and had experienced in person. The online dimension provides a virtual space where a minority group of people, from all parts of the country, can hold discussions and debates. The basis and, at the same time, the result of this process of reflexivity is the development of a specific vocabulary, since, in a culture where monogamy is the norm, “there aren’t words for what we do or how we feel” (Ritchie and Barker, 2006). It may therefore be said that the use of social network sites follows, rather than precedes, a process of personal growth, but allows people to nurture this process by sharing their views with others, and to clarify, accept and strengthen it through mutual support. This confirms the particular and specific use of the Internet and social networks by sexual minorities and the LGBT community (Rosenfeld and Thomas, 2012; Seidenberg, et al., 2017; Sumter and Vandenbosch, 2019).
RQ2: To what extent are online environments specifically dedicated to discussion and debate on consensual non-monogamies used as spaces for reflection on one’s own life project, and to what extent do they also (or only?) play a practical role in increasing the base of potential new intimate relationships?
In addition to having already broken away from monogamy, often the people who join these groups have been in or are currently in consensual non-monogamous relationships, and they do not generally enter into new ones with people they meet within the groups. Furthermore, in order to safeguard the “non-predatory” climate of these environments, dating within the groups is culturally opposed and formally forbidden by the official rules. Thus, the search for new partners for polyamorous relationships does not take place within these specific groups, but mainly at off-line meetings and increasingly through dedicated dating sites, apps and platforms (especially Tinder and Okcupid). These are the same channels through which people seek “normal” relationships: non-recent estimates indicate that in the United States about 20 percent of new couples are made up of people who met online via dedicated services (Rosenfeld and Thomas, 2012), and that 15 percent of all adult Americans have used services of this kind (Smith, 2016).
RQ3: How much of what happens on specific social networks remains confined to the online dimension, and how much is instead also carried over, expressed, put into practice in offline daily life? For example, does being a member of spaces that help and support people who are still socially stigmatised, such as those who practice consensual non-monogamy, make it easier to come out with relatives, family members, colleagues, friends?
According to some authors, the possibility of creating highly specific niches for online discussion fosters people’s cognitive closure towards opinions, values and feelings that differ from their own, causing them to withdraw into a “tailor-made” world (Sunstein, 2001). Reference has also been made to the “bubble” or “filter” effect (Pariser, 2012). Other authors have shed light on the high degree of continuity between the online and off-line dimensions, especially amongst young people (boyd, 2014), and the support provided by online spaces to help non-heterosexual people come out (Craig and McInroy, 2014). The information gathered from the interviews conducted in this study partially confirms this: in some cases online discussions did in fact give people the courage that they might not otherwise have had to come out offline. Nonetheless, the majority of the people who were interviewed said that their willingness to come out had neither increased nor decreased after joining the Facebook groups. What did change was the clarity and clear-headedness with which they were able to talk with friends and family members about their non-monogamous relationships, when they wanted to. Thus, the shared process of reflecting about themselves and their own experiences, done online, certainly increased their personal awareness, albeit without necessarily making them more open.
In general, it is worth recalling that the slow shift in relational forms towards the abstract ideal of the “pure relationship” first started at the beginning of modernity. Consensual non-monogamy in its various forms has, of course, been practised for a long time: consider, for example, the “free love” advocated in the late 1960s, and the subsequent return to the more traditionalist model. Nevertheless, perhaps it is no coincidence that the term “polyamory” was only coined in the early 1990s by the forerunners of today’s SNSs (with the proposal to establish the alt.poly-amory newsgroup); it subsequently went on to become part of everyday language and was included in the Oxford English Dictionary for the first time in 2006. This detail can be interpreted as further confirmation of the fact that consensual non-monogamies are part of a far-reaching historical shift and are certainly not an “effect” of the diffusion of SNSs. However, at the same time, the online spaces that have emerged in the last 30 years are not only supporting this change, they are also actively giving it a form that can be communicated and shared.
The everyday use of social network sites and the development of non-conventional intimate relationships are both phenomena that are rapidly changing. This research was guided by a number of very specific questions and concentrated on certain limited aspects of these two phenomena. Future research should investigate the issues addressed in this study, taking a broader perspective. Moreover, with time, it will be possible to conduct longitudinal studies in order to understand how these relationships evolve over the years. For historical reasons, up until now researchers have mainly studied adolescents and young adults. As these people grow older, it will be possible to follow the role of online groups in intimate relationships over an entire lifetime.
About the author
Luciano Paccagnella is Associate Professor of Sociology of Communication and New Media at University of Turin (Italy).
E-mail: luciano [dot] paccagnella [at] unito [dot] it
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Received 12 June 2019; revised 16 December 2019; accepted 2 January 2020.
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Social network sites as empowerment tools in consensual non-monogamies: The case of polyamory in Italy
by Luciano Paccagnella.
First Monday, Volume 25, Number 2 - 3 February 2020