Meet the Myth-Busting Polycules of TikTok
"When your best friend sleeps with your boyfriend," laments TikTok user @3.mountains. "B----, you were there!" the best friend bites back while cuddling on the bed with the partner in question.
This is a prime example of #polyamory TikTok, a subsection of LGBTQIA+ TikTok disseminating critical information on nonmonogamy. The polyamory hashtag has accrued 1.7 billion views on TikTok, with #polyamorous, #polyamorytiktok and #polycule accumulating 1.3 billion, 89.2 million and 21.1 million views, respectively.
Content creators from @cliquebaittvplayhouse to @decolonizinglove have shared their experiences of nonmonogamy, dispelling myths surrounding long-term relationships and polyamory. Now, polycules are mobilizing to further polyamory content.
What's a polycule?
A polycule is generally defined as a romantic network, or a particular subset of relationships within a romantic network, whose members are closely connected. Between 4 percent and 5 percent of people living in the United States are involved in consensual nonmonogamous relationships, according to a study published in 2014. However, more than 20 percent of people have participated in ethical nonmonogamy at some point, concluded a 2016 study in the Journal of Sex & Martial Therapy.
Polycules can be intimate, familiar, romantic or sexual in nature, and through TikTok visibility, they are reshaping the idea of the nuclear family. Co-creating content within their homes, polycule members such as @grayguitar and @aspencultleader reinforce the idea that sex isn't the dominant formula in polyamorous settings. Instead, polycules are chiefly ruled by radical ideas on domesticity, reshaping the relationships between monogamy, heterosexuality and the home.
TikTok and polyamory—what's the link?
These TikTok creators specifically focus on dissecting the dynamics within a network of relationships. For instance, @sailorstar published a video introducing their polycule, each member's varying identities and with whom they are romantically involved. Sailorstar outlines that polyamorous networks aren't always linear: Often, not all members are equally involved with one another, either romantically or sexually. Sometimes, the connection between two members of the same polycule is purely platonic.
Polyamory continues to be plagued by misconceptions, and this is why accurate representation is so fundamental. Leanne Yau runs Poly Philia, the largest polyamory education platform in Europe, and has been actively nonmonogamous since they were 17. Yau has run the @polyphilia TikTok account since May 2021. They've since gained more than 120,000 followers, but still have reservations about the poly representation on the app.
"It could be better. I am one of very few polyamorous people of color on the platform, and I would love to see more representation of trans people, asexual people and disabled people. That said, it is slowly improving," they said.
Yau is expressly dedicated to deconstructing myths surrounding polyamory, having conceptualized a bingo card composed of harmful anti-poly tropes they have encountered both on- and offline. It includes everything from "I could never do that" to "You haven't found 'the one' yet."
Even with its current representation gaps, where the education system fails, TikTok excels. At present, polyamory is not referenced, let alone dictated, by United Kingdom sex ed curriculum, though current legislation on sex education guidelines necessitates content on wider LGBTQIA+ issues. In the United States, the situation remains much the same. Education on sex and LGBTQIA+ issues is limited at best, completely restricted at worst, and polyamory isn't referenced at all in high school textbooks.
True, the practice does challenge core social norms. In 1882, romantic or spouse-like relationships involving more than two people under one roof were criminalized, and to this day, the Pew Research Center reports that a mere 1 in 5 U.S. adults believe polyamory is morally acceptable.
However, one 2020 YouGov poll concluded that almost one-third of surveyed Americans stated their ideal relationship is nonmonogamous, though it is worth noting that an open relationship is vastly different to polyamory despite falling under the "nonmonogamy" label. While an open relationship denotes a relationship between two people in which both partners can pursue sex with other parties, polyamory is an identity denoting an intrinsic desire for romantic, sexual or intimate relationships with more than one partner.
How do polyamorous people feel about TikTok?
Ness Cooper is a U.K.-based sex and relationship coach who identifies as poly. She experimented with having multiple partners as a teen, before she was ever formally acquainted with the term polyamory.
"I was naturally drawn to multiple consensual relationships," she said. "I later set up a local support group for individuals in polyamorous and open relationships to connect. I don't run the group any longer, but it was nice to chat with individuals who had different experiences and relationships dynamics. Now, Twitter is one of my favorite ways to connect with other polyamorous individuals. On TikTok, I've connected with a few polyamorous accounts but have sometimes found that their representations don't always fall into the traditional realms of polyamory."
That may be the greatest revelation of all. Poly relationships are just like monogamous ones in one critical sense: Each one is unique to the people in it.
"It's important to be aware that only those within a particular relationship dynamic can fully know what their relationship and sexuality is, and how they interpret labels and definitions is personal to them," Ness explained.
"Whilst some of the content is designed to shock people, it is bringing more awareness to polyamory," she continued. "It's a good stepping-stone in education for youth who are only just starting to develop an understanding of their sexual identity."