The (Proverbial) Label Maker: How Labels Help Shape Communities

13- Label MakerIn polyamory there are all kinds of labels floating around. Much like a graceful flying squirrel, most of the labels are cute and harmless but once in a while I will hear someone disagreeing with this word or that. There seems to be a delicate plea for political correctness in the community; I gather most of that is probably due to the “alternative” or minority nature of polyamory, thus leaving it vulnerable to misconceptions.


We see everything from poly and polyamory, to polyfidelity, polysaturated, open marriage or relationship, or monogamish (courtesy of Dan Savage1). There’s primary, secondary, tertiary, other-ary (okay I made that one up), dyad, triad, triangle, quad, tribe, heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, paramour, metamour, cowboy (or girl), unicorn, switch, candaulism, compersion; well you get the idea. I could go on for a long time, but my goal here isn’t to put you into a temporary state of narcolepsy.


As you can see, labels in the poly community run the gamut, and serve to create a mutual understanding of what polyamory entails. Since many aspects of polyamory are not “officially” discussed in mainstream society, these labels are often unique to alternative communities, in place of Webster. We could probably write an entire dictionary of terms specific to polyamory; we could call it the Polyctionary (pronounced: pul-ic-shun-ary).


Labels serve a useful purpose in developing identity, both for individuals and groups of people. In the case of a sexual or social minority, people who feel and act differently from the mainstream will notice how they clash with society; this begins the process of forming an identity that is different from the “norm”.  When they become familiar with labels that describe this difference, they appropriate those labels for themselves. This process of becoming familiar with and adopting labels cements that non-normative identity. Using this mechanism people become aware of who they are and how they fit into groups and society2. Also, by attaching labels to abstract ideas it’s easier for people to make sense of that idea3.


You’re probably asking yourself, “What the heck did she just say?” To illustrate, for many years I’ve been convinced that being in love with only one person was self-limiting. I was completely unaware of others like me, and assumed I was some kind of love-struck weirdo. I decided to serial date instead, as this was the only (semi) acceptable way I could be with more than one person at a time. My partners always knew about each other, but I was still made to feel like a deviant, by my peers and my society. The day I came upon the word “polyamory” everything changed. Once I began learning about polyamory I became aware that there is a structure within this word that I could follow, allowing me to live the way I want and still be an ethically sound person. Yay! So I’m not a freak after all (darn, maybe next time). Through the process of learning all of this I eventually attached the label of “polyamorist” to myself, as well other labels unique to a poly life. It has since become part of my paradigm and I now have something to identify as, instead of just aimlessly forcing my philosophy of unselfish love down the throat of anyone who would listen. In other words, the labels helped me form a schema of polyamory that allowed me to integrate polyamory into my personal philosophy and way of life. They also help those outside of the polyamorous community understand where I’m coming from when I’m trying to describe abstract concepts to people who are not familiar with polyamory (like the concept of compersion, for example).


Many in the poly community prefer not to be labeled, or grouped into a category, and that is perfectly understandable. I’m always interested in hearing how others feel about labels, and where the line is drawn (for example, what definition fits the word “polyamory” over others?).


We all need to belong, whether we’re polyamorous or otherwise. Each and every one of us desires to feel like part of something, that’s human nature. We want to feel connected to others, and it’s important to have a strong sense of identity to do that. If I’m a narcissist, I know I should seek a job on Wall Street (haha, just kidding; mostly). If I’m a new mother, I probably want to be surrounded by other mothers who will understand the transition I’m going through. If I’m a groupie, I first need to decide which band(s) I identify most with, so I don’t waste my groupie energy stalking the wrong musicians.


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. I might not want to call myself “A” or my configuration “B” but I will certainly not judge others for adopting those labels. Besides, can you imagine the world without those cute, harmless little flying squirrels? It would be a much sadder place, indeed.




1 Dan Savage. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved September 18, 2012, from

2 Jamil, O. B., Harper, G. W., Fernandez, M. I. (2009). Sexual and ethnic identity development among gay-bisexual-questioning (GBQ) male ethnic minority adolescents. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 15(3), 203-214.

3 Lupyan, G. (2006). Labels facilitate learning of novel categories.  In A. Cangelosi, A.D.M. Smith & K.R. Smith (Eds). The Evolution of Language: Proceedings of the 6th International Conference. (pp. 190-197). Singapore: World Scientific.


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