Tag Archives: compulsory monogamy

Further Thoughts on DOMA and Polyamory

It's only when you marry two goats that things really get out of hand (via Cyanide & Happiness).

It’s only when you marry two goats that things really get out of hand (via Cyanide & Happiness).

As promised, I’d like to elaborate (ramble) a bit now about my thoughts on poly marriage and DOMA.

I’ve always responded to the slippery-slope argument by asserting that poly marriage is not, in fact, anything to be terrified of. I’ve occasionally seen responses from other poly folks that are more along the lines of “everyone should calm down, we’re not interested in marriage right now, anyway.” That might be true, but it’s not really the line I’m interested in taking when it comes to defending the idea of poly marriage. My point has always been that from an ethical perspective, you can’t defend same-sex marriage and then not extend that thinking to plural marriage as well. As for pedophilia and bestiality, it feels absurd that I should even have to point this out, but it seems pretty simple to draw the line at consenting adult humans being free to marry one another. Children and goats are not capable of meaningful consent. Now, some people argue that adult women in fundamentalist polygamy type situations aren’t really provided with the opportunity to give meaningful consent, either. But unfortunately, the same thing is true for a lot of women in fundamentalist religious monogamous marriages as well, and we don’t use that as a reason to throw marriage out all together. The fact that some plural marriages, like plenty of monogamous marriages, happen in a problematic way is not a moral argument against the entire institution. I don’t believe that poly marriage is right around the corner. But if I’m going to defend the ethical implications of it, I’m going to do so in a way that says “if this happened tomorrow, so what? Have you stopped and thought about whether there’s really anything ethically different about this than about monogamous marriage, gay or straight?”

I think that the repeal of DOMA does pave the way in our general direction at least in the ethical sense. I’m inclined to agree with law professor Mark Goldfeder, quoted in USA Today as saying: “It’s one hundred percent likely that these polygamist cases will come, but they will no longer turn on whether a relationship is immoral. The court will look at whether these relationships cause third party harm.” Of course, my personal dividing line of whether or not something is immoral is really no different than the question of whether it causes third party harm. But that aside, I think Goldfeder makes a good point. I think that when polygamist cases are brought before courts in the future, the DOMA decision will have some impact on the outcome. And unlike Wesley Pruden at the Washington Times, I think that’s a positive thing.

While I am all for boldly asserting the ethical acceptability of poly marriage, though, and also genuinely hopeful that either poly marriage will come to pass or the whole government-marriage business will be disbanded one day, I am not particularly interested in placing marriage at the center of poly activism.

Part of my reluctance to place marriage rights at the forefront is really similar to the critiques of the assimilationist nature of the same-sex marriage movement. While a lot of us poly folks (myself included) do have two or more “marriage-like” relationships, a lot of us don’t. Plenty of poly people choose to share a home with only one–or even zero!–partners. Plenty of us who do have two or more cohabiting, life-committed partners also have other lovers outside of that. Part of the beauty of polyamory is its ability to take many different forms, to be many different things, to reject very narrow preconceived molds of what romantic, intimate relationships should look like. And I’m afraid that if marriage becomes our central focus, we’ll put forth a public image of poly that erases all of that wonderful, liberatory variation.

Another concern I have is about the narrowness of marriage as a focus. I address this at a bit more length in a piece that’s forthcoming soon over at Modern Poly, but to put it briefly, I think that if we really look at what compulsory monogamy is and where it comes from in our society, we can talk about patriarchy. We can talk about capitalism. And I feel like we can say “you know, I really just want to marry two people and live in the suburbs” and leave it at that. Or we can have these conversations about radically challenging the dominant power structures. And I think we can do both of these things at the same time; I’m living with my partners in the suburbs, after all. But I think if we allow marriage to become the entirety of the conversation, we’re really missing out on a much larger and more important opportunity to situate ourselves as part of a broader system of hierarchies and oppressions.

I know that in the wake of the DOMA ruling, we’re going to be called on a lot by people from all over the political spectrum to talk about our own feelings about marriage. It’s potentially a great opportunity. I just hope we can make sure the conversation is a nuanced and inclusive one.

The Importance of Being Critical

I spend a lot of time writing and talking about polyamory: here on my blog, in other publications, and in discussion groups and forums. And as anyone who follows this blog has gathered, I can often be critical of some things that occur frequently within polyamorous relationships: hierarchical structures, rules and regulations, veto-power, etc. Frequently, I’ve been accused of saying that some things are more poly than others, or that there’s a “right” way to do poly. I don’t like it when others are poly-police, saying what is and isn’t more “perfectly” poly than something else. But I want to take a minute to talk about how that kind of policing is different than being critical of some tendencies within a lot of poly relationships.

I engage a lot with social justice, in a variety of ways. To me, a huge component of that is turning a critical lens on the dominant social structures of patriarchy, heterosexism, racism, classism, and hierarchies of all kinds. But just like I challenge the system of compulsory monogamy, I’m also going to challenge problematic things I see happening within polyamory. There is no free-pass given just because we are both poly; if you are doing something I find to be patriarchal, problematically hierarchical, heterosexist, or any other oppressive thing, I am going to talk about that. That doesn’t mean I’m saying anyone is doing poly “wrong.” Poly means being open to the potential of loving multiple people simultaneously, nothing more and nothing less. I don’t think you’re more poly or less poly if you have a closed triad relationship, if you have seventeen lovers you only see once a year, if you have no lovers but know that the idea of loving multiple people sounds and feels right to you, if you have threesomes or foursomes or more or if you don’t, if you’re asexual and think polyamory works to describe the way you connect with others in your life. None of these is a more “correct” way to do poly, and I disagree with anyone who tries to tell you otherwise. But if I see behavior within poly relationships that I think is hierarchical or oppressive, I’m going to talk and write about that. And I think those kinds of challenges to the status quo are not only acceptable, but necessary.

A lot of my freelance writing outside of this blog is centered on feminism. Part of that involves dealing with problematic hierarchies that often exist between men and women in heterosexual relationships. When I am critical of patriarchal power dynamics, it doesn’t mean I’m saying that relationships between men and women are in some way inherently wrong. It means I’m criticizing the way that patriarchy plays out in some of those relationships. A lot of radical queer activists are very critical of more mainstream LGBTQ politics. That doesn’t mean they’re accusing anyone of being “less gay” or of doing queerness wrong. It just means that they’re critical of some of the priorities and tendencies within the mainstream LGBTQ movement. These kinds of criticism create important dialogue. And it is not about insulting individuals, but about challenging power structures that play out in very real ways, and that have very real and harmful consequences. When I write about what I see as the problems with hierarchies, restrictive rules and regulations, veto-power, or gender imbalances in poly relationships, what I want is to ask people to really think about the reasons they’re making the choices they’re making. I want to call out the social structures that cause us to behave the way we do, to question the status quo. I don’t want to tell anyone that they’re a horrible person or that they’re not poly enough. I want to have a conversation. I want to give people things to think about. Most of us have already accepted the fact that compulsory monogamy is a problem, that too many people are coerced by society into “choosing” monogamy without ever considering any alternatives. And I want to ask whether—even once we’ve broken that particular mold—some of the choices we make within poly relationships are rooted in similar unconscious social conditioning. These are questions I think we all must be willing to confront. And anyone who understands how pervasive the system of compulsory monogamy is should also be willing to turn a critical eye toward other social structures, as well.

I’m never going to tell anyone that their poly relationship is structured “wrong,” or that they’re less poly than someone else. But I’m always going to challenge hierarchies, wherever I encounter them. “To each their own” is a well-intentioned sentiment, but it’s not a worthy excuse for letting oppressive structures go unchallenged.

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 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.

What’s so Bad About Monogamy? Nothing, Except When it’s Compulsory.

Over the years, one thing I’ve encountered many times is the accusation from (some) monogamous folks that poly people present ourselves as “more enlightened” and “smug.” There are bound to be some poly people who legitimately look down their noses at monogamous people, but the vast majority of us are not at all critical of monogamy itself. We’re critical of the institution of compulsory monogamy, the set of norms which present monogamy as the only possible option. Even in trying to clarify this, though, I’ve encountered defensive responses from some monogamous folks: “you’re implying all monogamous people are mindless sheep,” “I freely chose monogamy after considering all the options,” etc. Now, to be clear, I certainly don’t want to imply that anyone is mindless. But the reality is that society does circumscribe the choices we feel capable of making. That doesn’t mean we’re mindless, it means we’re human—social creatures who long for the acceptance of a larger community and are vulnerable to criticism and shame.

If a lot of poly people seem particularly bitter toward compulsory monogamy, and sometimes even toward monogamy itself, it’s probably because very few of us were able to identify and live polyamorously from a young age. Most of us spent years—often long, heartbreaking, damaging years—trying to force ourselves into a kind of relationship that was inauthentic for us. And yes, a lot of us have come out of that holding a bit of a grudge against compulsory monogamy.

I have always been polyamorous. As soon as I was old enough to have serious crushes, I had them on more than one person at a time. I ended some early relationships not because I stopped wanting to be with one guy, but because I started wanting to be with another and thought that was the only option. When I fell deeply in love and knew that I wanted to spend my life with someone, I never considered that could mean anything other than only that someone. The options were either: settle down and remain exclusively with this person you love, or have variety, but without long-term meaning and commitment and depth. I chose love. And I’ll spare you all the drawn-out details, but suffice it to say that I spent several years of marriage trying desperately to actually conform to monogamy. I knew that I loved my husband, that I couldn’t imagine my life without him. I thought that was supposed to just flip a switch to make you stop developing feelings for others, and it felt like something was broken in me when that didn’t happen. I hated myself, I wondered what was wrong with me. The only thing that prevented me from developing feelings for others was completely isolating myself from meeting new people, and that was just trading one misery for another. I contemplated affairs. I contemplated divorce. I contemplated suicide. Realizing I was polyamorous—that I had no choice to be anything but polyamorous—and beginning to actually live authentically to who I am was like opening up the curtains and letting all this sunlight in and seeing things clearly for the first time.

When I look back now on all those years of trying to force myself into contentment with monogamy, it seems absurd. Being happy, having a life that actually feels right, is so easy, and yet I was made to feel that it was impossible. As liberating it was to finally be myself, it was also infuriating to realize that I could have been happy all along if not for some artificial, repressive social structures. And yes, there are moments when that kind of realization does make you want to go up and shout from the rooftops: “look everyone! There’s another way!”

I know that monogamy is right for a lot of people. And I know that a fair amount of people actually are aware of alternatives, and still choose monogamy freely. That’s wonderful. I want all people to be able to live the lives that are right and meaningful for them. But I also know there are still countless people in the same place I was in, trying to force themselves into a role that doesn’t feel right and never will. Right now, there are people who are ending relationships they don’t want to end, or having affairs and hating themselves for it, or forcing themselves to follow the rules but feeling miserable and not understanding why. And I want those people to be able to be happy. I want them to know they can have a different life.

Monogamy, just like any other relationship structure, can be great. But compulsory monogamy, quite plainly, sucks. And just as one can be heterosexual and still hate the institution of compulsory heterosexuality, I hope that even monogamous folks can find it within themselves to sympathize and to understand why I’m not about to stop hating compulsory monogamy anytime soon.