Polyamory will probably be the next frontier in sexual ethics. (It will be a close-run thing between polyamory and sex robots. The two may actually come to prominence at the same time, whether in parallel or partnership.) It’s a topic we need to start thinking about now.
Acceptance and practice of polyamory are already on the rise and will probably move quickly. As with earlier stages of the sexual revolution, storytelling will play a key part in bringing polyamory into mainstream acceptance. This has already started in series like You Me Her and the BBC’s Wanderlust, and this year the BBC has offered another poly drama, Trigonometry.
The BBC 2 series tells the story of Kieran and Gemma, a couple who take in a lodger, Ramona (known as Ray), to help ease their financial pressures. (Be warned—the rest of the post will contain big spoilers about the series!) Over time, all three characters develop feelings for each other. At first, they are unsure how to handle this, but gradually they accept their feelings and enter into a relationship. By this point, Kieran and Gemma are husband and wife, and so Ray becomes their mutual girlfriend. The later episodes of the series follow the throuple as they navigate the complexities of their relationship and come out to their friends and family.
The portrayal of the relationship might not be what you would expect. Trigonometry portrays what we might dub ‘new polyamory’, not the free love of a sectarian community, but a relationship that probably looks quite like most contemporary secular relationships, just with an additional person. At the heart of new polyamory is not sex but love. (That’s not to say that sex doesn’t feature prominently in the series. It certainly does.)
As we seek to think about polyamory from a Christian perspective, there are several elements of Trigonometry that are worth reflecting upon.
The early episodes of the series portray the trio’s growing desire for each other. While they do wrestle with what to do with these desires, as viewers we’re given a clear sense that the desires will be unstoppable, like a cart hurtling downhill, picking up speed. The outcome is presented as almost obvious, with just social convention standing in the way. Social convention is really the only framework available to them as they seek to evaluate their desires, and social convention is easily overcome by a bit of courage and safety in numbers. The three eventually conclude that these conventions aren’t necessary and that their attraction to each other is too strong to be resisted. The formation of the throuple is presented as the obvious and only available option.
But this is a very dangerous way of handling desires. If desires are all but unstoppable, how can we criticise the person who ignores the need for consent when their desire for sex isn’t being met? And if social convention is the only way to test the legitimacy of a desire, what happens when the dominant group in a society set a convention that allows them to act on desires most people would see as wrong? In this approach to ethics, it’s the powerful who get to dictate what is moral, and later generations then sometimes look back in horror at the desires that were allowed to be fulfilled.
The reality is, we all accept that there are some desires that are not good and must be controlled. And the only safe way for us to evaluate our desires is to have an external authority that gives definition to what is right and wrong, life-giving or destructive. Kieran, Gemma and Ray never stop to consider whether their desires might not be the best guide to finding their best life, and of course, in the fictional world of the series, the writers will give an outcome that suggests they are. Would things work out so well in real life?
Directions of Conformity
One of the threads of the narrative in Trigonometry explores the reactions of the trio’s friends and families. Unsurprisingly, most are rather unsure when they first learn of the new relationship.
This raises the issue of conformity. At this point, if the friendships and family connections are going to be maintained, one side will probably have to conform. In times gone past, Kieran, Gemma and Ray would likely have conformed to the expectations of their friends and family and suppressed their desires. But, as you’d expect in a modern narrative, in the series, it’s actually the friends and family who have to conform to the trio’s desires. On the whole, they do so, but Gemma’s brother struggles to accept the relationship. Inevitably, therefore, he’s presented as a slightly unpleasant, angry, and unenlightened figure. This is a classic modern heroic narrative. The heroes are those who follow their hearts even when others reject them. The baddies are those who question whether the heroes should be following their hearts.
Again though, we all know that our hearts are not a good guide. Is the serial killer who follows the desire of his heart to kill lots of people a hero? Are those who think he should have suppressed that desire the baddies? If not, why not? Obviously, this isn’t to say that conforming to what others think is always right. That would take us back to the social conventions we’ve already dismissed. If we want to know how to live, we need an external authority that knows what’s best for us and to which we can all conform, regardless of our desires or the opinion of others.
When we first meet Kieran and Gemma, their relationship is struggling. Shift work means they barely see each other, financial pressures are getting to them, and cracks are beginning to show. But when Ray arrives and three form a relationship, the tone changes. For Kieran and Gemma, getting a girlfriend saves their relationship.
This is a common idea in poly dramas and among supporters of polyamory. Opening relationships up to additional partners can save a dying relationship.
I can’t help thinking this is a bit naïve. Relationships have issues because we as humans all have issues. Adding another person might help detract from those issues for a time, but chances are they’ll just surface again later. And of course, they’ll be more issues to arise because each new partner will bring their own issues with them. Adding more people won’t save a relationship in the long term. Filling a flowerpot with more flowers doesn’t deal with the weeds. Weeds have to be removed at the roots.
The Inconvenience of Biology
The ending of Trigonometry included a few surprise twists. (Again, major spoiler warning.) Earlier in the series, we find out that Gemma is unable to conceive children. Or so she thought. Much to her surprise, in the final episode, she finds herself to be pregnant. This poses the trio with an interesting situation. Kieran and Gemma have both contributed to the creation of this new life. They are now not only united by marriage but biologically by a child. Ray, of course, has no biological link to the baby.
Gemma’s unapproving brother sees this as obvious proof that the relationship is a bad idea and makes this very clear. To the viewer’s surprise—or at least to my surprise—Ray comes to agree and quietly removes herself from the relationship. I found this fascinating. Even secular people can see that biology orientates us towards and unites us into relationships between one man and one woman. We think we can create any relationship formation we want to, but simple biology would seem to point in a different direction. (This is one of the reasons why we need to reclaim the role of procreation in biblical sexual ethics.)
But then the final shock twist comes in the last scene. We hear a heartbeat, we see an ultrasound picture, the camera pans, and we see Gemma, Kieran—and Ray. The end. There’s no explanation of what has changed. No explanation of how the relationship will function with the imbalance of Kieran and Gemma being united by marriage and parenthood and Ray just being the live-in girlfriend. We are simply left to cheer at the implied happy ending as our heroes ignore not only social convention but also the inconvenience of biology.
Polyamory is coming, in many ways it’s already here, and it’s probably here to stay. All the evidence suggests that polyamory will become widely accepted and that may happen fairly quickly. It’s time for us to start thinking about a Christian response. Stories like Trigonometry will be a powerful influence on the world around us, but every story will also reveal the problems with polyamory. We need to learn to spot those problems and to present the world with another story. A story that is true, good, and life-giving.