Monthly Archives: May 2013

Poly Feminism: Monogamy’s One-Sided History

The supposed long and honorable tradition of monogamous marriage is often held up as an argument against everything from legal same-sex marriage to polyamorous relationships. But even aside from the fact that such arguments from tradition are inherently fallacious, this depiction of monogamy’s history is simply wrong. Throughout most of known history, in fact, monogamy has been a patriarchal double standard. In many times and places, sexual fidelity within marriage has been demanded of women, while men have been either implicitly or explicitly entitled to seek sex freely outside of marriage. In ancient Greece, often held up as a paragon of sexual liberty, it was only men who were given license to engage in free sexual relationships with women and boys outside of their marriages; Rome’s marital expectations were no different. In Marriage: A History, Stephanie Coontz writes: “The sexual double standard was so completely accepted by Romans that the educator Quintilian used the notion of a sexual single standard as the perfect illustration of an illogical proposition: ‘If a relationship between a mistress and a male slave is disgraceful, then one between a master and a female slave is disgraceful.’ This statement sounds reasonable to contemporary ears, along the lines of what’s sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander. But to Quintilian the parallel was ridiculous, and he had no doubt his audience would agree. To suggest that men should be bound by the same moral conventions as women, he argued, was as illogical as to conclude that human morality should be the same as animal morality.”

Of course, it’s difficult to fully draw comparisons between ancient civilizations and the modern world, but the sexual double standard is one feature of these civilizations that has persisted. In Western cultures, male infidelity was often discussed quite lightly and openly until the eighteenth century, and in the nineteenth century, such conversations simply became more discreet. In times and places where the law has concerned itself with marital infidelity, punishments for sexually unfaithful wives have nearly always been far more severe than punishments for unfaithful husbands. When men have been legally punished for crimes of infidelity, it is usually when they have played the role of the “other man,” and in that case have “stolen” another man’s property. In fact, much of marriage law was written as a kind of property law. And marriage was not, historically, an egalitarian relationship that gave both partners a kind of “ownership” over each other. It was unapologetically one-sided, granting men ownership of women. Even rape of another man’s wife was not historically seen as a violation of the woman so much as an act of theft from the husband.

Barbaric as all of this might sound, we are hardly free from these double standards today. Society still largely condones the sexual infidelity of men with a dismissive “boys will be boys” response, or places the burden on women to keep a man interested—ie., if you don’t have sex at a certain frequency or maintain a certain beauty standard, he’ll cheat; it’s simply his nature to do so, and fighting that nature is an uphill battle on the woman’s part. Women, meanwhile, continue to face much harsher social condemnation for infidelity, as sexual desire is still not widely seen as a “natural” part of our characters. When women engage in infidelity, we are defying not only the bounds of monogamy, but the bounds of our (chaste and virtuous) gender roles as well. And while perhaps it happens, I’ve never once heard someone blame a man for his female partner’s unfaithfulness, and find it difficult to imagine folks saying things like “he shouldn’t have let himself gain those 30 pounds and she wouldn’t have found someone sexier” or “he should have gone down on her more often, then she wouldn’t have looked for it elsewhere.” Sexual double standards might no longer be codified in (Western) law, but they are no less engrained in society.

Many of the attempts to encourage more egalitarian marriage have centered on discouraging male sexual liberty. But polyamory can be seen as taking the opposite approach: not denying male desire for multiple partners, but claiming a right to that desire for women as well. By and large, men, as a group have never been monogamous (though obviously, plenty of individual men have been). And in that sense, polyamory certainly has the potential to exist as a new frontier for women in particular.

All of this is not to say, of course, that monogamy cannot be egalitarian. As human beings, we have the ability to constantly reshape and redefine our social institutions, and countless modern-day couples live happily in marriages that bear no resemblance to the historical woman-as-property model. But if we are going to have an open and honest dialogue about what monogamy means, I believe we need to have an honest awareness of its history. And we can’t possibly talk truthfully about the “tradition” of marriage without acknowledging that tradition as a patriarchal one.

Non-Monogamy and Commitment: Not a Contradiction

Tomorrow, I’m celebrating two years with one of my partners. A lot of people view polyamory as something that’s somehow inherently contradictory with commitment, as if “commitment” is synonymous with “monogamy.” But even as we reject the dominant paradigm of romance, the reality is that we’re perfectly capable of making commitments, too. Far from the opposite of commitment, for many of us poly means making more commitments.

One of my partners and I have been together for over 16 years, and have been legally married for nearly 11. My other partner and I have been talking a lot lately about having some kind of wedding/commitment ceremony, something I’ve pondered in the past. I can understand and relate to all of the radical queer objections to same-sex marriage; I am skeptical of marriage as a state institution, and also skeptical of assimilation into problematic and normative patterns. Marriage as we know it is heteronormative and patriarchal in its origins, and the romanticization of finding “the one” and living happily ever after is at least partially to blame for the way that monogamy is placed on a pedestal.

But despite of these criticisms, I love love. I am, in some ways, very traditionally romantic. It does matter to me to identify certain people as my partners. It matters to me to plan a life and a future with them. However normative it might be, I want commitment. I want to be able to talk about “forever.” I respect and appreciate people who are able to take a more open approach to relationships, allowing people to fluidly move in and out of their lives, or from one role in their lives to another. But for me, being poly doesn’t mean completely abandoning all fairy-tale notions of love. It just means that my happily-ever-after looks a little different than most.

Not too long ago, one of my partners and I were talking about how excited we are to be spending our lives together, and also how great it is that we don’t know exactly what our lives will look like 10 or 20 years from now. In some ways, it’s the best of both worlds: I have the stability of commitment, without the limitations. We know, with as much certainty as humans are capable of, that we want to be together for the rest of our lives. But that says nothing about what else we might want someday, or what kind of intimate experiences we might share with others along the way. We are committed to each other, and one component of that is a commitment is to grow and change and adapt to new things that might come our way. To me, one of the greatest benefits of polyamory is that it means not needing to choose between the security of lifelong commitment, and the possibility of having new romantic and sexual experiences throughout our lives. If I was only interested in the constant availability of new partners and lovers, I could have simply remained “unattached.” But the truth is that I want to be attached. I just want to be attached in a way that feels expansive instead of limiting.

I have heard people say that non-monogamy sounds unromantic, that it is simply too pragmatic a way to approach relationships. But to me, polyamory is not about some cold, ideological calculation. It is about nothing more than it’s about love. I don’t believe in anything like fate or soul mates, but I am madly, passionately, deeply in love with both of my partners, and I believe they’re the closest things to soul mates a person can have. I can’t imagine my life without either of them in it. I can’t imagine a world in which I was forced to choose.

Even with all of my awareness of the problematic social construction of marriage, the harms done in the name of romance and love, I cannot help but daydream about what this “wedding” will look like. I’m reading Offbeat Bride and thinking about dresses. I know how artificially manufactured “weddings” as we know them are. But I live within this society, and whether I want to or not, I do care about standing up in front of my friends and family and saying—in culturally legible ways—this is love, too. And it’s as real as yours.

At the end of the day, I don’t have any interest in un-romanticizing anything. I’m all for believing in true love, making commitments, declaring that love and commitment before the world. Rather than asking people to abandon old notions of love and commitment and family and romance, I’m far more interested in fighting for an expanded definition of what those things mean. I believe that we can take the old traditions and infuse them with whatever meaning we choose, as long as we are conscious and intentional about doing so. And for me, love is all the more meaningful when it is freely given. In the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley: “Love withers under constraints: its very essence is liberty: it is compatible neither with obedience, jealousy, nor fear: it is there most pure, perfect, and unlimited where its votaries live in confidence, equality and unreserve.”

These past two years have been the best, happiest, most fulfilling years of my life, and never have I been more excited to see what the future looks like. I’ll avoid going on at the kind of sappy, still-smitten-after-two-years lengths that I realize can be a little nausea-inducing at times. But I dare anyone to try to tell me that polyamory is un-romantic, that non-monogamy is incompatible with love.

Poly Without Rules: How Does that Work?

I’ve written in the past about my views on rules in poly relationships, and one of the most common responses I receive when discussing that part of my ideology is that it sounds great in theory, but can’t possibly work in practice. I think we’re really trained by a lot of the poly how-to guides out there that one of the absolute keys to making polyamory run smoothly is to sit down and draw up some kind of contract with a whole lot of specific rules and restrictions, and to a lot of folks the idea of embarking on non-monogamy without such clearly defined rules seems like a haphazard recipe for disaster. But for me, living without rules in my relationships isn’t just about ideology, it’s actually how we live and function (quite happily!). So I wanted to spend a little bit of time talking about the practicalities of how poly without rules actually works in practice.

First of all, a lack of rules does not mean a lack of communication. If anything, not having formal rules necessitates clear, specific communication even more. I think it’s incredibly important for everyone to have the right and the ability to communicate their preferences to their partners. I don’t believe that we have a right to make rules to control the behavior of others, but I do believe that we all–as humans–have the right to tell others what we want, need, and prefer in our intimate relationships. The difference between these two things is more than just semantics; it’s the difference between seeking to dictate the behavior of others vs. being honest about our own desires/wants/needs and asking others to try their best to respect those desires/wants/needs.

For one example, one thing a lot of poly folks have firm rules about is when they must be notified of a partner’s new romantic/sexual interest. Some might have a rule that they must discuss it before becoming involved with a new person at all, some have rules that say kissing without prior notice is okay but anything beyond that needs to be talked about in advance, some people insist on meeting a partner’s potential partner before anything happens, and so on and so forth, in as many variations as you can imagine. So how do you approach such a discussion without rules?

For me, this is about communicating preferences. I can tell a partner “I’d prefer if you have the opportunity to let me know before something happens between you and someone else, especially sex. If you have good indications that something’s going on ahead of time, you should let me know. But I also understand sometimes things just happen, people get caught up in something, and I don’t want you to feel like you have to turn something down/walk away from a desirable situation because you haven’t had an opportunity to check in with me.” To me, this kind of framing is a lot more nuanced than a firm rule, just like real life and relationships are nuanced. My partners know that if things happen in a way that deviates from my preferences, I’m likely to struggle with it emotionally a little bit more. And that’s an awareness they can use to help make a decision about how to handle a particular situation. But if they do something in a way that doesn’t perfectly match my preference, it doesn’t mean they’ve broken a rule, it doesn’t mean they’ve betrayed me, and it doesn’t mean they’ll face any kind of punitive consequences.

If a partner were to continuously, time after time, blatantly ignore my communicated preferences and desires, that would demonstrate a lack of basic respect for me. But that’s a flawed relationship, not something that formal rules could have protected me from. I know that my partners love and respect me, and I know that they both generally want to behave in a way that won’t cause me any pain and suffering. This should be true in all relationships. I also know that we’re all human, and sometimes we’re all going to do things differently than what the others would find ideal. And I don’t need to be able to say “you broke such and such a rule!” in order to tell someone “this kind of hurt my feelings, and here’s how I’d appreciate you trying to do it differently in the future.”

People in relationships–poly or not–have all kinds of mutual agreements that they more or less abide by, about everything from who takes the trash out to whether they’ll call if they’ll be home late to how they decide on making major purchases. We don’t generally view these things as “rules,” but simply the mutually-desired dynamics that develop over the course of merging our lives with someone else. Agreements about how we form relationships with others don’t have to be any more daunting or complicated than this.

Again, I’ve heard many times that the distinction I would make between “agreements” and “rules” is merely a matter of semantics. But I have to disagree. Words have power and meaning, and declaring that something is a “rule” another person must adhere to is incredibly different from a mutually consensual agreement, or a well-intentioned request. There is a world of difference between saying to a person “you are not allowed to _______” vs. saying “I would appreciate it if you would ________.” And I am anti-authoritarian enough to find that difference crucial.

Poly without rules does not mean just sitting by while your partners do absolutely whatever, whenever, and silencing yourself if their behavior is painful for you. That would hardly be a happy, functional relationship. Poly without rules simply means communicating our needs and desires without turning them into some kind of mandates, and trusting our partners to love and respect us enough to want to behave in a non-hurtful way.

I hope this helps to demystify “poly without rules” at least a little bit, but I’d love to engage with further questions/concerns in the comments! Thanks, as always, for reading.

Happy (Slightly-Belated) Mother’s Day!

Instead of a real post of my own, I’m just going to take a few moments to direct you to some poly-sweetness elsewhere on the web.

First up, a lovely post over at the Strong Families blog about poly motherhood (and sisterhood) from a non-biological mama in a poly relationship. I’ve long been aware of Strong Families, and am a huge fan of their multi-racial, multi-family-style mother’s day e-cards. So I was particularly appreciative of them for including a piece from a poly perspective. It always especially makes me happy when an organization/blog/website/whatever that I already know and respect from the feminist part of my life is poly-inclusive as well. Thanks, Strong Families!

Second, this sweet new poly webcomic, Kimchi Cuddles:

Not all the posts are about poly parenting specifically, but they’re all cute and there are more than a few that I can relate to. Again with the appreciation, it’s always nice to have art/media/entertainment available that actually reflects our poly lives and experiences. And of course, every little bit of it is a part of our growing visibility.

Finally, and having nothing at all to do with Mother’s Day: the fine folks over at Modern Poly have opened up a webstore, and they’re currently taking pre-orders for an assortment for T-shirts and buttons (and more fun goodies to come soon!) in a variety of “poly pride” designs, including a LGBTQ/poly solidarity design by yours truly. All proceeds support their poly advocacy work. 


Poly Feminism: Thoughts on Women’s Sexual Liberation

At a time when American women were still fighting for the right to vote, Emma Goldman and her fellow anarchists were already advocating for women’s sexual liberation. Goldman criticized the suffragettes for focusing only on the right of women to refuse sex, arguing that women had a right not only to reject unwanted sex, but also to fulfill their own sexual desires. Goldman recognized contraception as a crucial component to female sexual liberation, and was sharply divided from most “first wave” feminists in her acknowledgment of female sexual pleasure and desire. Fiercely anti-monogamous, and just as fiercely romantic, Goldman proclaimed freely given love as an ideal.

It was not until many years later, however, in the 1960s, that such notions of female sexual desire and autonomy gained any significant foothold. As my readers are no doubt aware, the 60s and 70s are synonymous with sexual liberation. The pill was newly available and by 1973 abortion was legal across the country, finally allowing women to separate sex and reproduction. The double standard that existed for centuries—wherein men had been able to enjoy consequence-free promiscuous sex, while women faced the dreaded possibility of unwed motherhood—was finally, at least in theory, equalized. Many “second wave” feminists—in terms that would have made Emma Goldman proud—emphasized women’s sexual pleasure and autonomy, denying the long-standing notion that women were simply sexless, puritan beings who existed only for the enjoyment of men. Though its heart was in the right place, however, and though there was much to be gained from a shifting perception of female autonomy and desire, the movement for sexual liberation was in some ways putting the cart before the horse. Encouraging women to seek sexual freedom without dramatically altering the underlying structure of patriarchy left many feeling disillusioned. Too many women sought free sexual exchanges, only to find many of their (heterosexual) sexual encounters repeating the same old problematic power dynamics between men and women that are inherent in a patriarchal society. In the always-brilliant words of bell hooks, “Sexual freedom can exist only when individuals are no longer oppressed by a socially constructed sexuality based on biologically determined definitions of sexuality: repression, guilt, shame, dominance, conquest, and exploitation. To set the stage for the development of that sexual freedom, feminist movement must continue to focus on ending female sexual oppression.”

Here in the 21st century, far too many people seem to believe that feminism is outdated and no longer necessary. But the fact that we now have an abundance of woman doctors and lawyers, that women are enrolled in college at a slightly higher rate than men, has not changed many of the problematic sexual dynamics that exist between men and women. Women are still astronomically more likely to be victims of sexual violence, and “slut shaming” and sexual double standards still abound. Sex-positive feminism has done us great services, raising awareness that women are sexual beings with our own needs and desires. But there are still far greater prohibitions for women than for men on the free exploration of sexuality, and women still live with the ever-present threat of sexual violence at the forefront of our sexual experience.

In this context, there is something profound about being a woman who rejects monogamy, who claims the right to sexual freedom even when in a committed relationship—a right that is difficult enough for even single women to claim without being labeled and shamed as “sluts.” It has always been revolutionary for women to assert our sexual autonomy and sexual desires, and that is, unfortunately, no less true today than it was in Emma Goldman’s time.

It is also unfortunately true, however, that “sexual freedom” is often still a disappointment in the context of our still-patriarchal society. Too often, it feels as though we’ve been “freed” to have more problematic sexual experiences, tainted by misogyny and sexism—hardly a liberating outcome. I firmly reject any essentialist conceptions that women desire commitment and stability, while men desire sexual freedom. But when viewed in a social context, I believe there is often some truth to this dichotomy. For men, in our society, sexual freedom is rewarding. For women, however, such “freedom” exists within the context of continued sexual oppression, and often turns out to be abusive and demeaning. There are very understandable reasons why many women might prefer the security and stability of a committed relationship over the struggle of seeking sexual liberation in a sexually oppressive society, and those reasons have nothing to do with biology or female lack of sexual desire and everything to do with the patriarchal terms of engagement we live with.

But what happens when we take away the notion of sexual exclusivity as a key component of commitment? What happens if we carve out a space where women (and men) can experience both respectful, loving commitment and sexual freedom autonomy simultaneously?

To me, this is at least one of the feminist possibilities of polyamory: the space it creates in-between the confines of monogamy (which, in a heterosexual context, is often disproportionately oppressive to women) and the (often misogynist and violent) other extreme of unbridled sexual freedom. For at least some of us women, this space in-between feels like an incredibly comfortable place to be.

For me, personally, it is empowering and liberating as a woman to refuse monogamy, not because monogamy is inherently oppressive (though again, for women it frequently,  historically has been), but because monogamy was inauthentic for me, and it feels meaningful, particularly as a woman, to assert my own sexual authenticity and autonomy. But for me, my sexual freedom does not correlate to a desire for a wide range of different sexual experiences. I am happy and content in two committed relationships, with two amazingly feminist men, with the knowledge that I am an autonomous being who is entitled to seek out other sexual experiences when and if I choose to do so, on my own terms and with the support and respect of my partners. To me, “sexual liberation” means that my sexuality is my own, and only I can determine what an authentic expression of that sexuality looks like.

I am not naïve enough to believe that polyamory is in any way necessarily feminist. But I am interested, at least, in some of the liberating possibilities it creates. My experience of polyamory has been intrinsically connected to my own awareness of myself as an autonomous, free, sexual human being. And I’m quite certain that in that experience, I’m not alone.

More on Polyamory and Feminism

In the few months since I’ve started this blog, my piece on feminism and polyamory has been by far my most viewed post. According to the stats, many of the folks who arrive here via google are searching for some variation of “polyamory and feminism.” And it turns out that when does google “polyamory and feminism,” this blog appears to be the top search result.

I’m incredibly glad that so many people appear to be interested in that particular intersection. And as a writer whose two main topics of choice are feminism and poly, I’d really love to be more of a consistent resource in that area. So with that in mind, I wanted to announce that I’m going to start posting specifically on poly and feminism on a regular basis. I’d like to say weekly, though I’m not committing firmly to that frequency. It’s a topic I’m looking forward to exploring more regularly and in more depth, especially knowing that there seems to be a great deal of interest. And I hope to invite some other poly and feminist writers and activists to contribute their thoughts here in the future.

If anyone has any thoughts/suggestions/requests for specific aspects of poly and feminism that you’d like to see addressed, please feel free to comment and let me know! And look out for the first post in this series to appear sometime in the next few days.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Poly Basics: Jealousy and Poly Relationships

The first thing I want to say on this subject is that jealousy—the experience of jealousy—is real. I think that sometimes when we’re trying to make ideological arguments against the way jealousy tends to play out in monogamous scenarios, we sound too dismissive of the very real pain and suffering that jealousy often causes. So I think it’s important to say at the outset of this discussion that regardless of whether jealousy is a social construction, it causes very real emotional consequences for people. When we decide to become polyamorous, we don’t just press a magical jealousy off-button, though it would be fantastic if we could. Some of us might truly just be “non-jealous types.” But for most of us, jealousy is still something we struggle with. We’ve just made a choice to confront it and deal with it in a different way.

I’m strongly of the opinion that romantic jealousy is very largely rooted in fear. Monogamous culture tells us that other possible romantic (or sexual) interests our partners have are unequivocally threats to our existing relationship. We are taught that it is simply not possible for someone to romantically love two people simultaneously. Therefore, if my partner begins to have feelings for someone else, the traditional thinking says that he must no longer have the same feelings for me. This thinking conditions us to fear situations where even the potential for romantic interest exists, to be uncomfortable with and skeptical about scenarios such as a partner developing a deep friendship with a person of their romantically preferred gender (good luck if you’re bi; all of your friendships must be treated as suspect). In this kind of paradigm, where other people are seen as a threat, it’s easy to view fear as a rational response.

In turn, jealousy is then used to justify all kinds of dehumanizing, possessive, controlling behaviors, particularly those enacted on women by men. The traditional monogamous (and patriarchal) ideology says that it’s reasonable for men to tell women who they can and can’t spend time with, what time they should be home at night, what they can and can’t wear. When jealousy is a motivating factor, we excuse people for invading one another’s privacy by reading each other’s emails and text messages, spying on them or listening in on conversations, and all manner of creepy, controlling behavior that’s often considered a precursor to physical abuse.

I have said a multitude of times that I do not have a problem with monogamy itself. But I do have a problem with the way monogamous ideology plays out when it fuels this kind of behavior. Jealousy does not ever justify controlling the behavior of others and treating them as possessions, and any social allowance for this kind of behavior is highly problematic.

But unfortunately, this fear-based jealousy is so deeply engrained in us, it can be very difficult to shake, even if we’ve shifted our thinking to recognize that others don’t pose a threat to our existing relationships. So what’s the alternative approach to dealing with these very real feelings, if not to enact rules and regulations to control the behavior of others?

In my opinion, and in my experience, the most valuable way to deal with your own feelings of jealousy is by communicating what you want and need from your partner, not by attempting to control their behavior outside of the relationship. If you’re feeling insecure, don’t respond by criticizing something your partner does with someone else, or by comparing one relationship to another. Instead, ask directly for what you need to feel better. Not by saying “I want you to spend less time with her,” but instead by saying “I really need some more quality time with you.” Try to identify exactly what bothers you about a particular situation. Are you afraid this other person is smarter, better in bed, more attractive? Do you feel threatened because they share something in common, an interest or a skill, with your partner that you don’t share? Does it just plain make you feel icky to imagine your partner having a similar emotional intimacy with someone else as they have with you? It’s important to really understand the particulars of your jealousy in order to be able to ask for the kinds of reassurance that will really succeed in making you feel better. But whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up for feeling jealous. It’s not your fault you’ve lived however many years in a society that teaches you to feel extreme discomfort at the very thought of your partner relating intimately to someone else. Communicate openly, be as honest as possible, and don’t turn your own feelings of fear into an attack on the other person.

What about when you’re on the other side, and it’s your partner who is wrestling with jealousy? First of all, validate and empathize with you partner’s feelings. Don’t try to simply rationalize him or her into feeling differently. Emotions are messy, and don’t always correspond neatly to ideology; it’s possible to know that a new relationship poses no threat to an existing one, and yet still struggle with very real pain and insecurity. Respond to your jealous partner with sympathy, not anger. But also, make it clear that your partner needs to be asking for what he or she needs from you, not trying to control your behavior with others. And when your partner does communicate needs and desires, make sure you do your best to meet them. This is how you build trust and security, and prove that your new relationship is not a threat.

Be sympathetic, too, about the pace at which your partner feels comfortable actually spending time with you and your new partner. Respect and recognize that someone saying “I’m not ready to see you two together yet” is not the same as saying “I’m not ready for you two to be together.” I don’t believe in making “rules” to circumscribe the behavior of others, but I do believe we all have a right to make our own decisions about what social situations we are or aren’t feeling ready to put ourselves in. After a time, it might become reasonable and necessary to ask a partner to step out of his or her comfort zone in this regard, but I recommend a willingness to take this part of things slowly if that’s what your partner needs.

I think it’s entirely possible for even monogamous relationships to use this sort of model for dealing with jealousy, rather than falling into the trap of possessive, controlling behavior. And conversely, it’s also possible for poly folks to respond problematically to jealousy, even after we think we’ve left the old paradigm behind. The basic suggestions I’ve offered here are no surefire guarantee that things will always go smoothly and that no one will ever feel hurt or angry. We have to remember how thoroughly we’ve been conditioned to feel jealousy, and to give ourselves permission to have some difficulty overcoming that. But we can’t extend that to permission to control and dehumanize others, regardless of how real our emotional experience of fear might be.