Where are you on the sexuality spectrum?
When Susannah Bailey married her husband in early 2016, her wedding day was as full of joy as any other. But instead of following the age-old tradition of the father walking her down the aisle, Susannah, a member of a loving polyamorous relationship, asked her boyfriend to do it. Meanwhile, her girlfriend stood by her side as the maid-of-honour. ‘My favourite photo from the day is of the four of us together, me in the middle with a big dumb grin on my face surrounded by the three people I love the most in the world,’ she says.
Those with a fixed idea of what relationship should look like might find such a scenario confronting, but 28-year-old Susannah says her poly relationship, in which she is married to a man and simultaneously dating her boyfriend and girlfriend, is far more natural than being in a monogamous heterosexual relationship ever was for her. She identifies as ‘pansexual’, which means she’s attracted to all genders. She also says she’s demisexual, which means she’s only attracted to a person if she has an emotional bond.
A broad spectrum
As sexual diversity becomes increasingly accepted in Australian society, those in non-traditional relationships highlight the fact that there is a complex sexuality spectrum that’s not limited to straight or gay. Dr Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli, a Senior Lecturer with Deakin’s School of Health and Social Development recently worked with Sara Lubowitz from the Sydney-based Women With Bi Partners Network to study mixed-orientation relationships or MOREs, as she refers to them.
The research included interviews with 78 culturally and sexually diverse Australian women aged between 19 and 65. All of the women had been in monogamous, open and polyamorous relationships with bisexual men. They identified as heterosexual, bisexual and lesbian, while some didn’t label themselves.
Through their research, they found that many of their interviewees experienced challenges. ‘Many Australian women say they feel overwhelmingly isolated, invisible, misrepresented and deliberately ignored, sometimes by their own male partners, often by families, friends, health services and more broadly in Australian media, popular culture and research,’ Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli says.
According to Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli, women in unconventional sexual relationships experienced discrimination from heterosexual and homosexual communities.
Redefining what’s normal
‘A common element among all the women in healthy and happy relationships was open communication with their partners as they designed, negotiated and maintained the ground rules and boundaries of their relationships,’ Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli explains. She also found that many women in relationships with bisexual men said they had better emotional and sexual intimacy and stronger gender relations than they did with heterosexual men.
Susannah’s experience echoes the research. She believes that relationships – whether monogamous or polyamorous – need a ‘willingness to talk through issues’ in order to survive. Of course in a poly relationship jealousy is a possibility, she admits. But says she priorotises her partners’ happiness rather than allowing envy to develop. ‘Jealousy is always caused by issues with your relationship, issues with yourself, or both. It’s almost never about the other person,’ she argues and adds that consensual non-monogomous relationships empower individuals rather than constraining them. ‘While it’s definitely still possible to cheat on a partner when in a poly relationship, it’s a lot less likely to happen because if someone wants to see someone else, because there is an established way to approach that in a positive manner,’ Susannah says.
In the coming years, Susannah and her husband plan to have children, while continuing their relationship with their partners. ‘When it works it’s the best feeling. I’ve never been happier,’ she says.
Dr Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli
Senior Lecturer, School of Health and Social Development, Deakin University