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Feminist, polyamory-friendly, sex-positive Praise of Monogamy

June 14, 2011

Yay for that!

I have a soft spot for anything that is feminist and sex-positive AND polyamory-friendly. I hope it marks some grand (or small) burp in the cultural digestive tract where we stop talking about polygamous relationships as something women with low self-esteems or abused victims or men (or muslims and “certain tribes’ Over There/Orient) live out.

But having said that, I found Thorn’s discussion fairly superficial and contrived. Particularly the “two categories” of non-monogamy (polyamory and ‘swinging’) and the less forgivable bit where “social acceptance” is listed as an advantage for monogamy.

There’s also a somewhat strange rationale on “jealousy management”.

+ Jealousy management. Some people experience jealousy more than, or less than, or differently from other people. Plenty of people in non-monogamous relationships experience jealousy — and plenty of non-monogamous people handle it just fine, through open-hearted communication. (Often, jealousy is managed through very detailed relationship agreements such as this fascinating polyamory “relationship contract”.)

But there are also plenty of people who appear to lack the “jealousy chip”.

And then there are plenty of people who experience so much jealousy, who feel that jealousy is such a big part of their emotional makeup, that the best way to manage it is simply through monogamy.

I just don’t get it. Of course, people in monogamous relationships get jealous.

The disclaimer about how “cheating is, of course, bad and wrong” was also kinda … ehh? 

Also. I am disdainful of phrases like, “textbook, healthy relationships”. And I really dislike calling lovers “primary” or “secondary” — man, how gross. We don’t do that with family and friends, why is it okay with our partners.

There are some 100 ways of expressing polyamory and when it comes to matters of the heart, you have to live and learn and figure things out for yourself.  Boundaries. Understanding and accepting your feelings. Accepting your partner’s feelings. There’s a whole bunch of bullshit that goes into it, as in any relationship.

One commentator said it best, though. I have bold-ened the parts that I thought was especially awesome and worth reading.

There’s nothing about monogamy that necessarily makes handling jealousy easier — if a person is prone to jealousy, or to acting carelessly in ways that could evoke jealousy in others, jealousy is gonna happen regardless of the relationship structure. If you live in community with other people, strangers or friends alike, jealousy will occur. There’s nothing special about the agreements that are made, implicitly or explicitly, in monogamous relationships that could necessarily insulate you from the experience. Faithfulness and trust are demonstrated (and required to varying degrees) in relationships of all kinds — monogamy certainly doesn’t have a lock on that.

Similarly, thinking that focus is something monogamous people prioritize more than polyamorous people ignores the basic fact that most people’s lives are comprised of many competing demands on their attention — children, work, survival, day-to-day life and ambitions. Making time for your intimate relationships is a challenge that has to be managed by everyone who has them, regardless of their relationship structure. Given the constant ebb and flow of life’s demands, there is no one relationship structure that can automatically answer those questions for you.

But perhaps what irks me most is the third “advantage” named: societal acceptance. While the author makes a nod to the fact that she’s talking about privilege, the implications of this argument are woefully underexplored. There is no monogamy test to get married. And for a lot of folks, marriage is still off the table because of OTHER axes of oppression. But while I certainly agree there are a number of privileges associated with compulsory monogamy, saying that these privileges are an “advantage” to monogamy is an incredibly disheartening argument to me. The problem with privilege is that it is unearned benefit — and often operates in a scarcity model that actively disenfranchises those who fall outside the privileged category. It creates insiders and outsiders — when many of us fall in multiple, overlapping categories of privileged and non-privileged — and enforces border wars where the line between inside and outside is policed. That is no advantage. It’s the kind of thing that needs to be actively resisted and deconstructed, regardless of whether you’re engaging in monogamy or polyamory or something else entirely.

The last reason given, while also simplistic, is honestly the only one I can get behind. If what you want is monogamy, and your partner consents, then go for it. I want a world where people get to have the relationships they desire and consent to, whether that looks like monogamy or polyamory or some other structure and protocol we’ve not yet dreamed of. The arguments about what kind of relationship is best (for everyone), the most radical, the coolest, the most interesting, the most sexy, the most successful — goodness, I stopped reading Cosmo when I was 12. Can we get off the hierarchy train already? One monolithic relationship structure is never going to work for everyone, or even for most people. What has the possibility to work, and to change the world for the better, is to prioritize the dynamics of consent and desire*, each in careful negotiation with each other. Desire and consent exist in tension — what you want you can’t always have, what is consented to (and offered) is not always what you want. But if we value our desire in tandem with a deep respect for the consent of everyone involved, then maybe we can continue repairing the damage that compulsory relationship structures (and the privilege that attends them) have wrought on the world.

*I’m using the term “desire” here to encompass a large swath of human experience ranging across the often-overlapping spectrum of sexual attraction and emotional intimacy and yearning.

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