Because I want to be perfectly clear here, I think it’s worth noting before I even delve into this topic that I am not in any way claiming polyamory is inherently feminist. We live in a patriarchal society, and I don’t believe any form of heterosexual relationships is completely free from the influence of that society. Poly relationships are absolutely capable of replicating traditional, sexist models of intimacy. I do believe, however, that there are some feminist possibilities within polyamorous relationships. And it’s those possibilities I’d like to discuss. Ultimately, it’s worth keeping in mind that these are all ways that polyamory feels feminist for me, while being aware that no experience is universal. I’d hate to imply that there’s never any sexism or misogyny among folks who identify as polyamorous, and I’d also hate to imply that there are no wonderfully egalitarian heterosexual monogamous relationships.
So, with that disclaimer out of the way, I present a brief list of some of the feminist potentials I see within poly relationships.
Polyamory disrupts traditional gender roles. Much of what we know as traditional gender roles are predicated on a heteronormative man/woman gender dichotomy in our intimate relationships. Whether we’re considering interpersonal dynamics or the way household labor is divided, it can be all too easy to simply fall into socially prescribed patterns for behavior based on what’s supposedly “appropriate” for one’s gender. In much the same way that queer relationships have the ability to subvert rigid gender roles, relationships that include more than one partner inherently exist outside of the traditional one man/one woman binary relationship. Breaking away from that model doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone is stepping outside of their prescribed gender roles, but it does open up some interesting potential.
Polyamory allows for women’s sexual autonomy. Throughout much of history, the institution of “monogamy” has really carried an implicit understanding that men are frequently engaging in infidelity while women are expected to be absolutely faithful. Apart from being an obvious double standard, this one-sided expectation exemplifies a multitude of oppressive gender stereotypes: that female sexuality serves only to satisfy men, that women do not have sexual desires of their own, that men are sexually insatiable but women are practically asexual. When men transgress boundaries of monogamous commitment, there’s frequently a “boys will be boys” connotation to the way we discuss their infidelity. When women transgress those same boundaries, however, they are seen as deviating from their very nature and are labeled as sluts and whores. At best, we expect men to struggle with monogamy, while for women we expect monogamy to feel like the most natural state imaginable.
Sexist double-standards certainly exist in some polyamorous relationships, as well, but there is at least a strong potential for the equal validation of male and female sexual desire, autonomy, and agency. Though many folks unfamiliar with polyamory still associate the concept of multiple partners exclusively with forms of patriarchal, religious polygamy, the norm by far within polyamorous communities seems to be that women and men are equally free to pursue multiple relationships, and it appears that a relationship structure like my own–one woman committed to two men–is one of the most common poly configurations. Certainly, plenty of heterosexual monogamous couples have relationships in which the sexual agency of both partners is respected as equal; non-monogamy is hardly a requirement for such a relationship. But polyamory is at least one possible path to greater sexual autonomy for women.
Polyamory reduces the potential for possessiveness, control, and jealousy. Jealousy in romantic relationships goes both ways, and deserves at least one entire blog post of its own. But smothering, possessive, controlling behavior is more frequently exhibited by men than women in heterosexual relationships, and is frequently a precursor to physical abuse. Obviously, there’s more to blame than just monogamy for the fact that so many men think they have a right to own and control the women in their lives. And there are definitely plenty of monogamous relationships that do not include this kind of possessiveness. But the ideology behind monogamy does lend itself to the notion that we have a kind of ownership over romantic partners, and especially that men have a kind of ownership over women’s bodies. Most early marital law, after all, was akin to property law, with women as the property. Polyamory liberates both men and women from this possessive notion of romantic love, but that liberation strikes me as even more meaningful for women, who are so often policed and scrutinized far more closely than their male counterparts.
Polyamory teaches everyone involved to communicate their needs and desires. Ideally, everyone in all relationships should be engaging in open and honest communication, asserting their individual needs and desires. But society often discourages women from doing so. Women are afraid of appearing too needy, too demanding, or–if the desires in question are sexual–too slutty. But because polyamory has no simple scripts to follow, it forces everyone involved to communicate clearly about what they want and need from individual partners. Again, this kind of communication is certainly a feature of many monogamous relationships as well, and should be an ingredient in all of them. But even many women with respectful, feminist partners have a difficult time asserting themselves after being taught by society to repress their desires. Polyamory forces the issue of open communication, and can help women feel entitled to articulate the specifics of their wants and needs.
I feel more ‘free’ every time I read an article like this, so from one woman to another, Thankyou for writing 🙂
Thank you for reading!
“But smothering, possessive, controlling behavior is more frequently exhibited by men than women in heterosexual relationships”
Citation missing – where did you get your data from ?
Here’s one study from 1996 which found that men are more jealous and hostile than women in “rejection sensitive” situations: http://socialrelations.psych.columbia.edu/publications/selected-publications/104-downey-g-a-feldman-s-1996-the-implications-of-rejection-sensitivity-for-intimate-relationshipsjournal-of-personality-and-social-psychology-70-1327-1343
It’s also well-known and well documented that excessive jealousy and possessive, controlling behaviors are warning signs of future physical abuse/components of emotional abuse, and men are statistically far more likely to be abusers than women are.
I think this post is great! I love how you explained exactly the situation you were talking about within the broader context of patriarchal relationships.
That said, I wouldn’t be so kind to queer relationships not being influenced by patriarchy. There is the possibility that through internalized homophobia for queer relationships to turn into mock heterosexual ones like a butch and a femme, a strict top and bottom, or daddy and boy where the butch/top/daddy is the ‘man’ and the femme/bottom/boy is not given agency and are ‘owned’ by their dominant partner and treated poorly. Those kinds of relationships have the same potential to fall prey to replicating traditional sexist models of intimacy. In fact, same-gender relationships have the same rates of abuse as differently-gendered ones.
Thank you, that’s an excellent point! I try to clarify when I’m talking about heterosexual relationships so that I don’t come across as blind to the fact that not all relationships include both men and women. But of course, that doesn’t mean there are no echoes of patriarchy in same-sex relationship dynamics as well. I appreciate you pointing that out.
Your article is interesting and provocative. I will agree with many of the things you have to say. I would like to address the jealousy issue because my own experience recently brought this to light for me.
I am a bisexual poly woman in a happy poly marriage for 18 years. My husband, like me, is a Pagan and a feminist. I have been involved with a male, Pagan, feminist lover for about eight years. He happens to be considerably older than I am and is in a committed relationship with his Pagan, feminist wife; they would, until recently, have described themselves as “swingers” as opposed to “polyamorous.” They are both good, loving men who are vocal and active about their support of a woman’s autonomy in all areas, including her sexual liberation.
Recently, I have become involved in a new relationship with a much younger man who has no other relationships at the moment. All of a sudden, both my husband and my lover have been acting in bizarre, jealous, possessive ways that I have never seen from either one of them. Obviously they are threatened by my new lover. I suppose I must confess to my own contribution, having had a little “shiny new boyfriend” syndrome, but I have found much of their behaviour an unwelcome surprise. Why, all of a sudden, would they act this way when I have never seen it previously?
I believe the answer is in the changed power dynamic. Because my long-term lover is in a committed relationship, my husband did not see him as a threat. Because my long-term lover is in a committed relationship, and I was already in a committed relationship with my husband, he knew what he was getting into and was prepared to accept this as a term of our relationship. The fact that my new lover is unattached makes him a “lone wolf” in their eyes, I suppose. Now my feelings and sexual behaviour step outside of the carefully-constructed model they were comfortable with, and while I have done nothing to violate the agreed-upon rules that we made in our relationships, they do not like it. This from, as I have said and I stand by, two very firmly feminist men. So perhaps you are right in that no heterosexual relationship can be entirely free of a patriarchal influence, even if it is subconscious.
The past few weeks have been very challenging. I am determined to keep all of my relationships, as well as my autonomy and self-respect, and I have felt a bit like a cat dancing on a hot tin roof as a result. To everyone’s credit, all are actively working on the situation. My husband and my long-term lover are working through their jealousy, my new lover has been patient and willing to compromise (and I wouldn’t have blamed him one bit if he’d cut and run, especially since this is his first experience with true polyamoury,) and I believe things are normalizing. Like in any good relationship, communication has been the key. I don’t know what I did to deserve these fine gentlemen, but I am glad to have them.
Thanks again for a thought-provoking article.
Reblogged this on Sable Aradia, Priestess & Witch.
As a life-long feminist (Iʻm now a senior), I ridiculed polyamory for years, calling it “that ʻ70s thing.” Then, after many, many years of virtual celibacy, following a painful divorce, I ʻaccidentlyʻ became polyamorous. I now have three wonderful lovers, all of whom are feminists and polyamorous. Thank Goddess!