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.