Hookup culture is as definitive to university life as Orientation week or Western's Spoke bagels. While the conventional view of numerous sexual partners is generally negative, the trend is evolving into something more meaningful: polyamory.
According to psychology professor Rhonda Balzarini, polyamory is defined as consensual non-monogamy (CNM) and involves a romantic relationship with a more intimate ”primary partner” in addition to one or more “secondary partners.”
Polyamory is not be be confused with Polygamy—in which a man or woman has more than one spouse. Although both practices involve multiple partners, polyamorous relationships stress openness, fair distribution of attention and are not often linked to religious beliefs.
“Polyamorists actively sustain their engagements with multiple partners through an ideology that emphasizes open and honest communication,” Balzarini says. She adds that open communication is key and is what sets CNM relationships apart from flat-out cheating or casual hookups.
Practicing polyamory involves an adherence to rules and agreements made amongst partners to deal with multiple intimate behaviours.
While ditching the idea of finding “the one” may seem uncomfortable in North America, Balzarini points out that 82 per cent of cultures already practice some form of polygyny. Research has even found that about one in five people have previously been a part of a CNM relationship at some point in their lives.
“All of this evidence is suggesting that humans are not a monogamous species,” notes Balzarini. She adds that high rates of infidelity also support evidence against single, monogamous relationships.
But are students practicing polyamory? Throwing around the words “open relationship” is a deal-breaker among some while others see it as an opportunity to meet new people.
Meghan, a current Western student, is currently in a relationship with one primary partner that she lives with as well as a number of secondary partners. “My primary and I are both aware of each other’s partners, and even share experiences with our other partners at times,” she says.
Meghan and her partners go on double dates together, engage in sexual experiences with other couples and singles, and attend sex clubs.
Both Meghan and Balzarini say that polyamorous relationships put less pressure on one partner to fulfill all sexual or romantic needs.
“You have multiple people to love and support you, to go out and do things with,” Meghan says. “It’s less likely that you will feel alone.”
While having more than one partner isn’t currently the norm, hookup culture and university atmosphere is evolving the dating scene.
“I think the university atmosphere can be good for poly relationships,” says Meghan. “There is already a hookup culture present, so why not add in the extra bits of love, support and open honest communication?”
According to Balzarini, “Between 25 and 75 per cent of sexual acts committed by adolescents and college students happen in the context of sexual relationships that lack any commitment.”
Meghan is confused that people seem to be “okay” and “used to” hookup culture and “dating around while single,” yet the idea of multiple consensual relationships raises an eyebrow.
Perhaps polyamory requires heightened awareness. As Balzarini points out, increased exposure tends to lead to further acceptance and awareness. “Knowing polyamory exists and is a viable relationship orientation, opens the door for people who are interested and capable of maintaining multiple relationships,” she says.
Balzarini asks people to consider The Bachelor: “Anyone who is a Bachelor fan knows it is possible for someone who identifies as monogamous to fall in love with more than one person,” she says.
As a university student being constantly introduced to new people on campus or navigating Tinder matches, millennials may find themselves in a similar predicament to Ben Higgins in season 20 of the Bachelor — infatuated with multiple people but having to choose one.
Meghan can’t ignore the challenges of being “poly” — such as jealousy — but says the benefits far outweigh the difficulties. Polyamory presents a more honest and communicative alternative to hookup culture that appears so often in university.
*Names has been changed to preserve anonymity.