30 Oct 2013

Polyamory and Feminism - Curious Bedfellows?

** DISCLAIMER - this is not intended as an endorsement or criticism/condemnation of any particular lifestyle, be it monogamous, polyamorous, celibate or 'other'. It's merely my own thoughts, reflections and experiences **

There have been some notable online articles regarding polyamory recently. This is really good to see, as despite my frantic Googling I was beginning to think there was very little in the way of public discourse on the issue. Joining a couple of Facebook groups has shown me there's plenty of private discussion, which is great, but obviously those already in the community know what the dealio is, whereas the monogamous mainstream hegemony is often unwilling or unable to learn what polyamory really is about.

So it was encouraging to read this article, which not only did a lot of helpful myth-busting about polyamory (hereafter shortened to 'poly') but also looked at it through a feminist lens. I do think that a lot of the toxic myths that we're sold about monogamy have their roots in the control of women. Fairytales about passive princesses waiting for that One Perfect Man to come and rescue them? Conditioning girls to be dependent and base their fulfilment on another person. Films, books and TV programmes that show however strong, sassy and intelligent a woman is, she still just wants A Man and babies? Modern day fairy tales hoping to insidiously set back feminist progress. Try to think of a film which ends with the female protagonist happy and single. I don't know about you, but I'm struggling. Then try to think of one which shows a woman having multiple partners, and living happily ever after. These cultural artefacts are probably out there somewhere, but they're certainly not anywhere in the mainstream.

Yet the mainstream take on sexuality is often dangerous and anti-woman. The monogamous heterosexual relationship model often seems to me to be based on, if not downright lies, then self-deception, deception of others, and the need to control others. Women complain that men don't listen. Men complain that women nag. Women complain that men don't communicate. Men complain that women don't say what they really mean. Poly forces people to stop using these lazy, gender-binary-enforcing excuses and start getting honest. Much like in BDSM, which despite appearing misogynistic to the ill-informed, actually prizes consent and communication far more effectively than the vanilla model of sex, poly acknowledges that you're not going to get anywhere without talking about stuff. And talking really, really honestly. About all the shitty, shameful and selfish urges to which we're all subject, at one time or another.

I've often felt like there was a conspiracy of silence surrounding monogamous relationships, insofar as no one else seemed to be struggling with them the way I did. No one else seemed to be standing up and saying 'if this person is So Right for me, why do I constantly get crushes on other people? Why is it acceptable to feel deep love for my friends of the same sex, but a connection to someone of the opposite gender is immediately viewed with suspicion? Why are the boundaries of what constitutes OK behaviour for a person in relationships so artificial and arbitrary, when you can have incredible intimacy with a person even if you've never even kissed?'. And when I asked people I'd get the standard answer 'Oh, everyone finds they're attracted to people other than their partner, you just have to get past it'. I never found it very helpful. Or particularly honest.

To me, monogamous relationships often seem to pivot on this kind of fear - fear that you might not love or be sufficiently attracted to your partner, fear that their feelings for you might not be strong enough, fear that you might have to take the painful step of leaving them, fear that they might leave you. I definitely suffered from the first and third a fair bit in long-term relationships, and found the worrying and wondering exhausted. When someone said to me 'maybe you are just better off having a number of less serious attachments', it was revelatory. No one had ever suggested that was genuinely acceptable option for a woman. Oh sure, we're shown caricatures of man-eaters in popular culture all the time (Yo, SATC's Samantha!), but they are usually so one-dimensional as to be unbelievable, or enough of a figure of fun that the viewer knows this is not someone to be looked up to or emulated. You're allowed to fuck around when you're young, when you're going through a 'rough patch', when you're 'just looking for comfort' etc etc. You're not allowed to stand up and say 'Yeah, I don't actually want a full-time partner, perhaps ever, but I really like sex'. The last woman I can think of who really talked such talk and walked that walk was Mae West, and perhaps that's why I've always been unconsciously drawn to her, fantastic trailblazer that she was. I don't say it's much easier for men, who are subject to their own pressures, but when it comes to reasons to be poly, the male sex drive is sufficiently stereotyped that people don't question it so much. He's a man, of course he wants lots of sex from lots of different woman. If a woman's poly? Hmmm, she must be doing it 'for love'...yawn...

And it's not necessarily even men who are to blame for such toxic stereotyping. As the article states,"when we see love as scarce, we are taught to see others outside of our relationship as potential competitors. Women, especially, are conditioned by our culture to see other women as their competitors." Oh boy, are we ever. See, thanks to the aggressive myth-pushing of the fairy tales and films and songs and TV programmes mentioned above, women are still operating with that subconscious idea of The Ultimate Goal - that being, getting and keeping A Man. Never mind that no one ever qualifies how this equates a fairytale ending (although the assumption is that what the women get is economic security, which is bizarrely, the same logic that sex workers are judged and condemned by the vanilla mainstream for exercising), A Man and One Man at that, is what women are supposed to want. So, women for whom this isn't of interest have traditionally been treated with suspicion. You only have to read the horrific stories of how lesbians are routinely treated in South Africa and hundreds of other cultures to see how women who don't base their lives around men are viewed as a threat to the social order. Or look at the rampant slut-shaming of any woman in history who has ever dared to suggest she enjoys sex, or can have it without love, or can enjoy it with multiple partners, or is happy to sell it.
Recently I've been subject to what I feel is, if not downright slut-shaming, then at least some pretty harsh judgement by other women due to my fairly sexually open persona. What I perceive in those women is projection of their own insecurities, possibly also jealousy that I'm unafraid to admit that I'm attracted to more than one man, and ultimately a need to police other women's behaviour and desires because I represent a threat to this starvation economy, where Men are the ultimate prize, and Other Women are our competitors for that prize. I find it kind of amusing, if I'm honest, but it's also pretty sad. And in that sense, I do see the poly way of life aligning with feminism much more effectively than the dominant models we are sold. If I am open and comfortable with my partner about our attraction to others, I am less likely to be paranoid and suspicious about his interactions with other women, and the same goes for him with regards to my interactions with other men. Whereas if we're in a relationship where we're supposed to pretend that attractions to others don't happen, we're much more likely to become jealous and possessive over each other, and view all members of the same sex as potential enemies. Much as I don't fool myself that poly is the answer to everything, when considering how it offers many more options for a feminist way of exercising sexuality and relationships, I do think it deals with a lot of issues that the vanilla monogamous hegemony is reluctant to address.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

> ...beginning to think there was
> very little in the way of public
> discourse on the issue.

Oh my, may I point you to polyamory in the News?