Category Archives: poly and feminism

If it’s not Feminist, then it’s not my Polyamory

Apologies for such silence on the blog these past weeks; we were gone on a family vacation, and since coming home I’ve had a handful of other writing projects requiring my attention.

I’m still at work on other things, but I wanted to take just a quick moment to talk about how essential I think feminism to polyamory. Which should be somewhat obvious by the series I write here about feminism and poly, but sometimes I think there’s a difference between merely recognizing an intersection vs. saying that activism in one area absolutely requires awareness and attention to another. And as I’ve encountered some really anti-feminist thought in some poly spaces recently, I really feel the need to briefly try to drive home how vital this connection is.

First, compulsory monogamy is, itself, a patriarchal institution. And I don’t think we can fight that institution in any meaningful way without unpacking its patriarchal legacy. If we say we want to challenge compulsory monogamy but we don’t make that challenge from an explicitly feminist perspective, then I think we’ll always fall a great deal short of really dismantling that institution at its roots. The entire dialogue around people having “ownership” of one another in romantic relationships is really rooted in notions of male ownership of women. Obviously, there are plenty of women who don’t want to “share” their partners, either (and not sharing can be totally fine, as long as its a conscious choice and not the result of a social mandate), but that doesn’t change the fact that the whole construction of “ownership” in marriage was never a two-way street.

And second, I think that poly without feminism can potentially be a rather dangerous thing. If polyamory is just a means of reproducing traditional sexist dynamics in relationships with multiple partners, then we’re stepping dangerously close to everything that’s wrong with traditional patriarchal “one man-many women” polygamy. I see polyamory veering close to this in relationships with the so-called “one-penis-policy,” for example, where a husband is permitted to date women, but his wife is only permitted to date women herself and forbidden from dating other men. With all of the problematic sexist gender dynamics that are potentially present in our sex and dating lives, I think that men wishing to engage in relationships with multiple women must be even more vigilant about upholding feminist values, because the potential harm and potential replication of patriarchal power structures might be even greater when a man is in a position of dominance over not just one woman, but several. I’m honestly not interested in fighting for the sexual liberation of men who will only use non-monogamy as a path to “conquer” a greater number of women.

To summarize, then, though I’ll say much more on this in the future, I’m entirely uninterested in participating in any kind of poly activism that isn’t explicitly feminist. To me, separating the two is incorrect both personally and politically.

(and of course, I believe that feminism needs to make room for a critique of compulsory monogamy, as well. More on that to come, too…)

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.

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.