She Has Two Hands! Room For non-monogamous love in yuri

By: Alexis Sara June 2, 20230 Comments
a smiling schoolgirl holding hands with two other girls

Romantic love can be an amazing and wonderful thing, but for many a “one true love” is simply not what they want or will have in their lives. Some may choose not to have a romantic partner, while others may have multiple. Non-monogamy is an umbrella term for relationship formats that do not involve all parties being exclusively with one partner, and it takes many forms. This article’s main focus is polyamory, a practice of dating multiple people ethically with all parties’ consent and knowledge, and the way it plays out in yuri stories. 

As many circles within many marginalized groups have talked about, representation matters. Yuri and the wider GL community has an increasing reach that seems to be growing each year, and it’s worth examining the ways in which the increased variety of yuri stories are representing different kinds of love and relationships. Love can be so many different things, after all, and it’s gratifying when fiction reflects that—not to mention how it opens new possibilities for storytelling and discussions of relationship dynamics.

three smiling women depicted as one couple
relationship diagram where one girl has two partners (who don't like each other)
Lemonade anthology

What is polyamory?

Polyamory is not necessarily a sexual thing. For a lot of folks there is a sexual component, but for some it is purely romantic. Some of the manga discussed below is for adults only, and others are more generally intended for a wider audience. 

I am personally a polyam (short for polyamorous) lesbian dating several amazing people, and have been dating multiple folks for many years now. For me it isn’t a preference but part of who I am, as natural as breathing air. For me, reading stories with love triangles evokes similar issues to the ones I have with Class S. Whereas a Class S yuri might imply someone will only date girls until graduation, many love triangles imply you can love multiple people until you mature enough to make a choice and “settle down.” Just as the idea that being a lesbian is a phase feels wrong to me, the idea that being able to love multiple people until I must make a choice between them feels wrong to me, too. I was shattered near the end of Kashimashi (2004)  when Hazumu is put into a position where the “adult” thing to do is to choose between Yasuna and Tomari, whom both love her—and she loves both of them. I couldn’t put words to it then, but even though I was happy that Hazumu was choosing life as a woman and choosing to be with other women—both of which really mattered to me—the fact that this happiness apparently required monogamy didn’t compute. The idea that three women who all get along couldn’t simply share a girlfriend is just unfair. 

It’s not that there’s anything problematic about stories with love triangles or “harems” that end with one coupling. It’s just to say that when I read these pieces of art I can often feel a layer of disconnect because it just isn’t how my heart works. I started dating my fiance and partner of nearly 15 years in high school, and even back then one of the first things I told them was “If you want to date other people too, that won’t bother me.” At the time it was because we lived about 40 minutes away from each other and I thought maybe they would want someone more local, but I was sincerely not jealous at the thought of them dating others. Neither of us would explore dating other people for quite a few more years, but we are now both in other long-term, loving relationships that don’t intersect with our relationship together. 

That is all to say that I am coming at this from a place of personal experience. As a person who has made a lot of mistakes, fallen in love plenty of times, and seen so many relationships form and end, I think this magic deserves to be shared with others—and it deserves a place in our yuri fiction, too. 

a relationship chart of the heroine and the girls she's interested in
I Don’t Know Which is Love

Let’s chat about harem yuri

Harem yuri is a fairly rare sight, but these stories that revolve around one woman being loved by multiple women and eventually needing to choose one to date, do exist. In a lot of ways these manga also represent a form of non-monogamy: the woman in question typically clearly has love in her heart for multiple women, though she is placed in a situation where she is eventually expected to make a choice on who her “true” love is. 

One of my recent favorites is Tamamusi’s I Don’t Know Which Is Love (2021), now being localized by Yen Press. After a recent heartbreak with her high school crush, main protagonist Mei is determined to get a girlfriend during college. On her first day she meets five different women, all of whom she is into and who seem to be into her. She exclaims at the end of the first chapter that she doesn’t know which is love (wow, title drop); from there we watch the different women courting Mei, and Mei clearly falling in love and even confessing her love to each of them. Now, this series is not over and could easily end with her dating all five girls, some of them, or none of them—but the title at least implies that Mei thinks some sort of monogamy must be achieved for it to be real love and not just her being smitten. 

This isn’t uncommon in harem manga, where countless women wish to be with a generic guy, but despite any horny antics he will ultimately end up with the single girl whose status as “final girl” was telegraphed from the beginning. This pattern does also appear in yuri. For example, Seifuku no Vampiress Lord’s main girl Yuunagi Irie, despite her clear attraction to other women and their attraction to her, is clearly going to end up with Nanase Shiragougi. Despite presenting multiple options at first, the story eventually totally shifts focus to Nanase and Yuunagi’s romance. It’s quite a good series, but it does illustrate the monogamous-normative nature of the genre: that a character’s attraction to other people isn’t really considered an authentic narrative possibility so long as they have a one true love to fall back on. 

I think in this way we can tell the harem subgenre and actual representations of polyamory apart. While both are non-monogamous to an extent, one’s end game is monogamy and the other’s end game is more than one love. There is also a vibes factor, which is much harder to put down into words; still, at the end of the day both have their place as a part of sapphic women’s lives. The harem stories matter a lot just by showing someone can love more than one person. Even if it doesn’t follow that as an end point, they still give us a lens into a moment of pseudo nonmonogamy. 

three women bewildered and listening to something
Tonari no heya kara Aegigoe ga surunde sukedo…

Polyam yuri manga

Despite its rarity, there has been an increase in stories that more explicitly, canonically explore polyamorous romance. Where there was once maybe a few easy-to-headcanon characters and (if we were lucky) a pseudo-canon throuple in a series, we now see yuri that fully embraces the idea that someone might be loved by or love multiple people in a healthy relationship. These series might end up being the seed that inspires much more art in the coming years. 

Tonari no heya kara Aegigoe ga surunde sukedo…(2020) might be one of the best looks at polyamory in the manga industry, even with its rushed ending. Sakaruko and Nagisa, a pair of friends with benefits who live with each other, find themselves falling in love with the new girl next door, Nakano. The series explores how their love for her affects their relationship as more or less Queer Platonic Partners and shows a primarily sexual relationship expanding into something romantic. All the while, Nakano is new to relationships and love, not sure what the difference between “love” and “like” are. Realizing she loves both of them close to the end of the series, the three decide to live together. This manga does a great job of being really queer, and showing how characters can work through jealousy with honest communication; and likely would have done even better if it hadn’t ended after two volumes.

While a side relationship, the triad that forms in volume six of Canno’s fantastic semi-anthology series Kiss and White Lily for My Dearest Girl (2013) is utterly adorable and given as much love as any other couple in the series. Canno would go even farther with their next series Goukaku no Tame no! Yasashii Sankaku Kankei Nyuumon (2020), which focuses totally on a triad forming between the characters initially caught in a love triangle. It even boldly opens with the triad each kissing each other in every combination, saying, roughly, “who decided that you could only love one person?” The opening instantly grabbed me as a polyamorous person who has felt this way her whole life. The trio’s love for each other is all so lovingly depicted, though sadly the cancellation of the series meant the pacing and attention had to be rushed to fit into the two volumes Canno was allowed. Still, it was amazing to see the 11 chapters unfold, and we can only hope someone will license these volumes so a wider audience can read this utterly adorable sapphic story. 

There was also a recent announcement that Yuri Tama: From Third Wheel to Trifecta—which follows a girl whose best friends are shipped by everyone at their school, but have both fallen for her—is getting an official translation from J-novel Club. There are also non-Japanese GL works like the Webtoon series Muted, which has a polyamorous main character. It is clear that artists making sapphic works are looking at polyamory as  fertile ground to tell stories not yet explored. However, these series are mostly being held back by early cancellations, not allowing them the room to stretch their legs and show readers how compelling these narratives can be.  

the narrator reflecting that she'd always seen monogamous relationships modeled in fiction and just went along with it
Kiss and White Lily for My Dearest Girl

Looking ahead

Yuri as it currently stands still mostly explores polyamory through the love triangle or harem lens of a protagonist being loved by multiple characters but eventually settling down with a “canon” monogamous romance. Relationships might or might not form between the other characters, but it’s still very much centering one girl, which sometimes makes it hard to tell what is a “harem” and what is “polyamory” other than the general vibe. While polyamory can look like that, we’re still lacking stories about other ways that polyamorous love can form. 

Polyamory can take the form of relationships like mine where each person is dating people independently of each other. It can be relationship anarchy, where parties just treat every relationship they have as special and unique without the strict labels. There are couples dating other couples, couples dating individuals, and a whole host of other shapes that could all make many, many amazing stories. Polyamory is, and has always been, a big part of queer culture, so it is important to see this reflected in art that centers on women loving women.

Right now, stories about polyam queer women are struggling to find homes. While we can’t know all the reasons why, we can hope these stories in the future get a lot more room to breathe. Polyamory is a complex beast with many layers and amazingly interesting dynamics to explore. In the future we may see even more yuri that explores the many weird and engaging ways polyam love takes shape as well as totally made up fantasy dynamics that make sense because sometimes a cute sapphic is a weird alien or something. The possibilities are endless! 

 No matter what happens, we can be sure  that polyamorous sapphics will still be here and still telling their own stories—even if the mainstream publishing scene takes a while to catch up and catch on to the potential there. There are a ton of amazing stories out there and a ton that have yet to be told, and I believe we can hope for a bright future for polyamorous yuri. 

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