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.