What’s a polycule? An expert on polyamory explains
With the collapse of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX, the media shined a spotlight on the personal lives of founder Sam Bankman-Fried and his inner circle.
It turns out that Bankman-Fried, his on-and-off girlfriend, Caroline Ellison, who served as CEO of FTX subsidiary Alameda and others involved in the company have dabbled in polyamory. Polyamorous relationships are a form consensual non-monogamy in which partners seek out multiple romantic or sexual relationships.
The Guardian noted that many of the people in the crypto empire’s inner circle, who were sharing a luxury penthouse in the Bahamas, are thought to have been in a “polycule,” meaning a network of interconnected romantic relationships. According to Coindesk, “All 10 are, or used to be, paired up in romantic relationships with each other.”
In a 2020 post on her Tumblr blog, Ellison reflected upon her exploration of polyamory:
“When I…started my first foray into poly, I thought of it as a radical break from my [traditional] past. [B]ut [to be honest], I’ve come to decide the only acceptable style of poly is best characterised as something like [an] ‘imperial Chinese harem’…none of this non-hierarchical bullshit. Everyone should have a ranking of their partners, people should know where they fall on the ranking, and there should be vicious power struggles for the ranks.”
As a researcher who studies social media, online dating and polyamory, I am concerned that Ellison’s posts – and the news reports covering them – could create misunderstandings about polyamory and polycules, and further stigmatize non-traditional relationship styles.
A poly primer
Polyamory – often shortened to “poly” – is relationship-focused and predicated on consent. Everyone involved is privy to the arrangement. It isn’t strictly about sex.
These relationship networks are known as “polycules” or “constellations,” and they can be complex and interconnected. The word polycule is a blending of “polyamory” and “molecule,” reflecting relationship configurations that often resemble the chemical structure of molecules.
In hierarchical polycules, which Ellison refers to in her blog post, there is a central relationship usually referred to as the “primary” relationship. Other people outside the central relationship are often called “secondary” or “tertiary” partners.
Views of how status can operate within hierarchical structures vary. For example, the Scarleteen poly primer suggests that “A ‘secondary’ partner isn’t necessarily less important, but may be a smaller part of someone’s daily life.”
The website Polyamory Today describes hierarchical poly as “One Primary Plus” where “Partners are not equal to each other in terms of power within the relationship and things like interconnection and relationship intensity.”
Non-hierarchical arrangements, on the other hand, reject a tiered system. In these sorts of relationship configurations, partners are not ranked with terms like primary or secondary. It also means that no one person has greater priority or privileges or “veto power” over other partners.
Hierarchy doesn’t mean subjugation
Debates about hierarchy are plentiful in poly circles and often elicit strong opinions – as Ellison’s blog reflects.
While Ellison sees the hierarchical style as superior, there is no evidence that one style of poly is better than another in terms of relationship satisfaction or attachment security. I’d argue that all styles are acceptable as long as everyone involved consents to the arrangement.
Hierarchical styles can clarify expectations about roles within a polycule. However even if Ellison is being tongue-in-cheek or sarcastic, I think it’s important to note that the “vicious power struggles for rank” that she calls for are contrary to the ethos of polyamory. The Find Poly blog states that advocating without competing is a vital skill in poly relationships, whether they’re hierarchical or non-hierarchical.
Furthermore, to those not familiar with polyamory, Ellison’s post can be misread to conflate contemporary polyamory with non-consensual forms of non-monogamy. By championing the Imperial Chinese Harem as a model, Ellison invokes the legacy of patriarchal societies in which women served as wives and concubines.
Why polycules matter
Recent studies show that consensual non-monogamy is becoming more common, especially among younger Americans. According to a YouGov survey from 2020, 43% of millennials are “likely to say their ideal relationship is non-monogamous.”
For this reason, Ellison’s posts more likely reflect changing relationship norms, rather than sexual deviancy.