Tag Archives: gender

Bisexuality as an Argument for Plural Marriage?

A few days ago, I stumbled on an article by Cary Tennis over at Salon arguing that bisexuality should be seen as an argument for plural marriage. He says “I am for maximum human freedom under the law. If being lesbian means one wants the right to be partners with women, and being gay means one wants the right to be partners with men, what does being bisexual mean if not that one wants the right to be partners with both sexes?”

Of course, there is a backlash to this, because many bisexual folks are offended by the suggestion that they’re incapable of monogamy (because unfortunately, in our society, being non-monogamous is something that one is “accused” of). To this, Tennis states “One can of course be bisexual and make the choice to marry monogamously. But must one? Why?”

As someone who’s long been interested in connecting the rights of poly folks with LGBTQ struggles, I find this argument tremendously interesting. But there are also some reasons why I find it worrisome.

I’ve definitely said in the past that bisexuality can be a compelling reason to engage in polyamory; while I totally recognize that many bi folks are perfectly capable of monogamy and don’t feel that their orientation manifests itself as a desire for two partners simultaneously, others do feel that they need both male and female partners to be completely fulfilled. And that should be embraced as a valid desire, not frowned upon as something that makes all bisexual people look bad or incapable of monogamy. I think what this comes down to, though, is not so much about bisexuality, but about the fact that some people—of all sexual orientations—are polyamorous, and others are not. When someone is both bi and poly, it only makes sense that they generally want to have both male and female partners. But in my mind, this desire is ultimately a feature of their poly-ness far more than their bisexuality.

I’m concerned that if we essentialize bisexuality as a “legitimate” argument for polyamory, we will find ourselves in a place where we only validate plural relationships that are bisexual in nature. Personally, I tend not to label my sexual orientation, because it feels too nuanced for any of the available labels. But “bisexual” would be the closest to accurate, if I was forced to choose one. And yet, my interest in potentially being in relationships with women was never a particularly driving force in my desire to live polyamorously. I’m in love with and deeply committed to two men, and I can easily conceive of a life in which I only had relationships with those men, but I cannot conceive of a life where I was forced to choose between them. Similarly, even most people I know who do feel that bisexuality was a strong factor in their desire for polyamory still want to be free to form relationships with people of both (or all) genders, not only people who are a different gender from their current partner. I’m sure that there are some people who feel that they specifically need one male and one female lover in order to be happy, nothing more and nothing less. But it seems that for the majority of us who for whatever reason feel compelled toward polyamory, we are far more interested in being able to form meaningful, loving relationships with multiple people in an organic and authentic way, which is not circumscribed by a rule that says “you can be involved with other women, but not other men.” If we argue for plural marriage on the basis of bisexuality, does that mean that we are arguing for plural marriage only in cases where one desires both a male and female spouse?

Tennis says that “It seems only logical that a bisexual person is capable of having equal and simultaneously deep, committed relationships with more than one person.” But why is it logical that all bisexual people are capable of this, and that no strictly heterosexual or homosexual people are? Being attracted to both men and women and being capable of deeply loving either a man or a woman says nothing about one’s capacity to deeply love two people simultaneously, and being capable of loving only men or only women does not mean that someone isn’t able to form simultaneous deep, committed relationships with more than one person. Again, to me this is a question far more of whether one is more “oriented” toward monogamy or polyamory, not a question of how many genders one sees as potential partners.

I am definitely interested in a stance that says bisexual people shouldn’t have to be limited to only one partner; even though many might make the choice to have only one partner, that should be their decision, not something forced upon them. But this is exactly the way I feel about all discussions of monogamy vs. polyamory, not only those which involve bisexuality. If we’re going to talk about maximum freedom under the law, then we need to give all people the ability to freely choose whether to be with one or more than one deeply committed partner, regardless of gender. If we actually recognize polyamory as a form of sexual orientation in its own right, we don’t need to rely on bisexuality as an inroad to validate polyamorous relationships. Regardless of the genders of their desired partners, some people simply are polyamorous. To me, that’s all the argument we should need for the recognition of plural relationships.

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What do Radical Politics have to do with it?

From my experience in poly circles and communities, it seems there’s often a reluctance to talk about politics. There’s something to be said, perhaps, for having politically-neutral spaces where folks can come together for personal advice on dealing with poly issues. But even when conversations turn to poly activism, it seems to me that there’s often a hesitation to link our cause with any bigger socio-political picture, let alone to actually endorse or argue for any specific political position. But I’m going to go ahead and stick my neck out here and talk a bit about why for me, my polyamorous identity and my radical left politics are inseparable.

I have heard a lot of people say things like “I don’t want to politicize my personal relationships.” I get that. I really do. I think it’s a very natural impulse to want our intimate relationships to exist outside of a realm of rational, ideological thought. But here’s the thing: our relationships are already politicized. Whether we’re gay, straight, bi, queer, monogamous, polyamorous, asexual, or whatever nuanced combination of those identities, how we form intimate relationships—and to what degree those relationships are accepted and validated by the society we live in—is hugely shaped by the socio-political context in which we exist.

Making the transition to living polyamrously played a huge role in my personal radicalization. I’d always had socialist leanings and was aware that my opinions were far left of liberal Democrats, but to a certain degree I was comfortable with writing my own ideologies off as extremes that would likely never be reflected or represented by a majority. At the same time, I’d spent years trying to find contentment in monogamy, knowing all along that it wasn’t authentic for me but seeing no other viable alternative. I didn’t see a problem with society for presenting monogamy as the only option, I instead saw flaws within myself for being unsatisfied. When I was finally living in a poly relationship, feeling free to actually be myself for the first time in my life, I couldn’t help but look back and wonder what had taken me so long, and why this had seemed so incredibly impossible. And the answer, of course, was that my life and my choices had been circumscribed by society. I thought of myself as someone who was reasonably comfortable going against the status quo, but even I had some social constructs—like monogamy—that were so deeply internalized, I couldn’t even think to seriously question them, even when they were causing me to suffer. It became incredibly disturbing to me that we are so indoctrinated into the set of norms we live with, we are more prepared to criticize our own inner desires than to criticize the constructs which make those desires shameful. And that realization played a huge role in opening my eyes to just how severely society limits us.

The real crux of all this, of course, is that these limitations exist for a reason. Social norms don’t just happen spontaneously with no larger connection to the structure of the world we live in. These norms serve a purpose, a purpose that almost always has something to do with upholding the current hierarchy. Social constructs are not merely about “tradition,” they’re about protecting the interests of the rich, straight, white men in power. And any social change that didn’t threaten that power structure would be met with little resistance.

Let’s look for just a moment specifically at patriarchy. This is an extremely simplified breakdown, because I don’t want this post to become thesis-length. But to summarize: we live in a patriarchal society. And patriarchy relies on the subordinate position of women. Upholding the dominance of men requires upholding traditional gender roles. And traditional gender roles rely to some degree on traditional relationship structures. Both compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory monogamy, then, help to uphold the patriarchal order. And so on, and so forth, with every intersecting system of oppression we live with.

Now, I want to be clear when addressing these things that I am not suggesting that all leftists reject the institution of monogamy as part of their political position. I don’t believe that something as personal and emotional as our intimate relationships should ever be chosen as a political stance. The aim of radical leftists should be to create a world in which we are all granted the freedom to form intimate relationships authentically, whatever that means for each of us. But I do call on radical leftists to challenge the institution of compulsory monogamy, and to consider the ways that institution both supports and is supported by the other oppressive structures we dedicate ourselves to fighting against.

On the other side of that coin, I call on poly folks to consider the way our struggles to live authentically and to be accepted connect with the bigger hierarchical picture of our society. When I talk about solidarity, I don’t just mean that we sympathize with and support the struggles of other people because we understand what it’s like to be looked down on, too. And I’m not just talking about some kind of reciprocal “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” way of looking at various fights for social justice. I’m talking about actually recognizing the complex system of oppressive social norms that are actually interconnected and are actively working to uphold one another. If you want to fight for poly acceptance but are not also interested in dismantling structures of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism, then I don’t believe you’re seeing the whole picture of society as it actually exists.

I realize this is brief for a discussion of such complex and deep-rooted problems, and I’m sure that some of it probably seems a bit vague and over-simplified. But the bottom line is, I think we need to start a dialogue. If we want to really challenge the status quo, to really disrupt social norms, then we need to start by thinking about where those norms came from, and whose interests they serve.

“But What About the Children?!”

As a polyamorous parent, few things are as frustrating or as offensive to me as the “but what about the poor children?” argument against polyamory, which I hear far too frequently. As with similar objections to same-sex marriage, it seems to me that this argument is really just an excuse for passing judgment; when pressed as to why it matters how consenting adults choose to live their lives, talking about the children in non-traditional family settings is a way for opponents of such relationships to claim that there are in fact “innocent victims” here. I don’t believe that these folks are really concerned about the well-being of children so much as they’re desperately seeking to validate their own biases and criticisms. And, of course, it’s a good way to “go for the jugular,” so to speak, as it seems fairly universal (and understandable) that parents are highly sensitive to any accusation that their home environment is harmful to their children. No matter how baseless we know such accusations to be, they still sting.

That’s why I was pleased to see a couple different articles speaking favorably about poly parenting in recent weeks. In her Psychology Today Blog last month, Bella DePaulo discussed some of the results of research on poly families being conducted by Elisabeth Sheff, and made several points about poly parenting that I’ve found myself making time and again. For one, on the question of stability, DePaulo points out that single parents also date, creating potential for their romantic partners to move in and out of their children’s lives, but we do not see single parents criticized for dating; we recognize that children can form valuable and meaningful relationships with step-parents. She also quotes the research finding that children are equally likely to report feeling a loss of platonic friends who have, for one reason or another, moved out of their parents’ lives. And finally, she raises the question of whether polyamorous partners might be more likely to remain in a child’s life even after a romantic relationship has ended. Those two points certainly hit close to home for me; my daughter has become attached to several platonic friends who are now no longer in our lives. My ex-boyfriend, however, is still a close friend and a part of her life. The idea that polyamory offers any larger threat to stability in a child’s life than any of the myriad other varieties of relationships kids are exposed to simply seems without merit; after all, even family members sometimes have a catastrophic falling-out that ends relationships. We can’t possibly shelter our children from any and all possibility that close and trusted adults will pass out of their lives, whether we’re single parents who are dating, polyamorous parents who are dating, or even just monogamously partnered parents who include other humans in our children’s lives.

More recently, at Live Science, Stephanie Pappas wrote about debunking 5 polyamory myths—one being that polyamory is bad for children. Pappas sited Sheff’s research as well, and pointed out that one concern many poly parents have is about the stigma their children potentially face from the outside world. If I had one poly-related concern for my daughter, this would be it. We talk frequently about other people’s opposition to families like ours, and I adore that she often says things like “oh no, kids having more people who love them! How scary!” But I hate that such conversations are even necessary. I don’t worry at all about her being harmed by our happy, loving, stable family. But I do worry about her being harmed by the hateful attitudes of people who don’t approve of her family simply because it has a different shape than what’s considered “normal.”

I’m immensely appreciative of articles like these, and I hope that they’re the beginning of a turning tide of opinion about polyamorous parenting. And I’d also like to add one thing that neither article mentioned: the fact that poly parenting can have feminist potential as well. We all know that even in supposedly progressive heterosexual relationships, the bulk of the childcare burden still tends to fall disproportionately on women’s shoulders. It seems to me that in order to truly change this, we’re going to have to rethink parenting in some drastic ways, to move beyond the male/female dyad. Polyamorous relationships open up the possibility of involving more adults in the raising of children, creating new potentials for more equitable distributions of child-rearing responsibilities. There are certainly other means of doing this: communal living and community resource sharing can allow for similar flexibilities in child-raising. And on the flipside, polyamorous parenting is of course not inherently feminist. But it seems to me worth noting that polyamory is at least one of the many ways we can think about taking a revolutionary approach to gender roles and responsibilities in parenthood.