12 Mar 2014

How polyamory got me thinking about female solidarity

Whenever the media is lacking in convenient reasons to take a pop at feminism, you can be sure it will manufacture one sharpish. Whether it's Lily Allen's most recent bit of stirring about how apparently feminism is worthless because it has just descended into one big bitch fight or the gleefully seized-upon controversy over Paris Lees' assertion that she doesn't mind cat-calls, the image of modern (and especially online) feminism seems to be one of a world turned in on itself, where we spend not enough time fighting the real enemies (sexual and physical violence against women, attacks on our reproductive rights, media sexism, economic discrimination and so on) and too much time telling each other we're "doing feminism wrong."
Only this morning I saw a comment on an article about Femen, demanding that we stop using the word 'feminists' to describe the problematic Ukrainian group, because they a) have Islamophobic views and b) use their bare breasts to get their point across. Well, shit. Betty Friedan and NOW used to condemn lesbians as "the lavender menace" and exclude them from the women's rights movement, yet interestingly we don't deny these wealthy, middle-class American women the right to call themselves feminists just because they held shitty views in the past. But any attempt at feminism from a former Eastern Bloc country must apparently be slapped down if it's not as media-literate as, or politically aligned with, privileged US and UK feminists. I'm not interested in adding fuel to that fire. You want to call yourself a feminist, you go right ahead - none of us have the monopoly on that phrase. None of us are perfect, or free from prejudice, however much we like to think we're the enlightened ones. For the record, I can't stand Femen's tactics - but I appreciate that they are grown women doing what they think is right. Just as much as I am.
This links in to what I was thinking about earlier today, which was how it's difficult to be in any large group of women without the automatic assumption that it will be riddled with in-fighting. This is a view particularly perpetuated by sexists, who like to believe that women are simply too competitive with and disloyal to each other to ever truly unite. They love that old joke "If women ran the world, there would be no wars...just a load of jealous countries not talking to each other." Cos ha ha HAA, women may not be quite so prone to warmongering, murder, mutilation, rape and OK-ing drone attacks, but they're still just so BITCHY there's no chance they could ever actually create a true sisterhood, and that's clearly worse, right?! If Country A thinks that Country B looks better in that dress than she does, well, better man the cruise missiles, cos there's going to be an international catfight (ah yes, "catfight", that lovely term that trivialises and reduces female anger to a humorous and hopefully erotic sideshow for men to enjoy).
I spend a lot of time amongst a large number of women (and a slightly smaller, but ever-growing, number of men) in my roller derby team. Unsurprisingly, I do witness disagreements, personality clashes and unpleasantness between women in this community. I see it like you'd see it in any workplace, academic institution, or group of friends. I see it from some women, and not from others. I also see it occur between the men but funnily enough, when men criticise each other behind each other's backs (and hoboy, do they ever), they're never called 'bitchy' for it, nor is this used as the basis to accuse the entire male sex of being incapable of ever showing loyalty to each other.
This made me think about how women are both set up to compete with each other, then promptly criticised and demonised for doing so by both feminists and sexists alike. Which in turn led me back (and yes I know I'm hopping across a lot of concepts today, but stick with me, I'm having a lot of thoughts) to my previous post on how polyamory seems to promote a more feminist view of relationships. When you're open to the idea of your lover finding other people (and if you're a largely heterosexual woman like myself, that means other women) attractive, you have to abandon the monogamous line of thinking that attention for other women must indicate a lack thereof for you, or that male approval of other women means the loss of such approval for you. And yes yes obviously in an ideal world no one would be seeking anyone's approval, but let's put that aside for now and acknowledge that in the real world we all do seek validation of our attractiveness, regardless of our gender or sexual orientation. Because it's nice to feel wanted and sexy, and it's especially nice to feel like someone wants to have sex with you, particularly when you would really like to have sex with them.
But it's not easy. These things don't come instinctively. For whatever reason, when my lover says "X Girl is hot", I don't immediately feel overwhelmed with happiness that X Girl's beauty is being appreciated by someone, or pleased for my lover that he is able to honestly express his sexuality in front of me. Instead, what I feel is insecure. I assume that a comparison is being made, and I'm coming out of it unfavourably. I feel worried, that my lover is going to find someone else whose physique is preferrable or superior to mine, and not like my body any more, or not like it as much as he did previously. I'm doing all the things that monogamy has taught me - seeing love, sexuality and affection as a zero-sum game, whereby one person's gain must mean another one's loss, demanding a version of my lover that doesn't exist, demanding behaviour that I myself cannot promise in return, and basically viewing the world of love and sex as one of scarcity. But I'm also doing all the things sexism has taught me - viewing another woman as a competitor, rather than a player on the same team, assigning an importance to both hers and my physical appearance that ranks it above everything else about us, and viewing male approval of that appearance as the most important/only opinion that counts. I'm also forgetting that one of the main reasons I'm polyamorous is because I'm a pretty intense appreciator of the opposite sex myself, and I reserve the right to express that without feeling guilty or like a monster for it (as I did for many years in mono relationships).
So along with all the learning and growing that polyamory requires you to do in shaking off your monogamous conditioning, I think it also demands some feminist growth. It takes a lot of strength to always show solidarity to other women. Especially when, as I've found on my polyamorous journey, some of them are apt to judge, hate on or spread rumours about you for daring to be a woman who will not settle down with one man. I've had moments when I'm very tempted to wreak the kind of havoc on others' personal lives that they have tried to do to me, and even though I know that walking away from such temptation and being 'the bigger person' is the right thing to do, it still feels bittersweet when it would be so easy to hurt those hypocrites the way they are trying to hurt me. Being ethical does not always feel like its own reward, but I have to believe in the long game, and believe that trying to take down other women simply because they cannot get their heads around the way I live, ain't feminism. Neither is hating on, or being jealous or suspicious of another woman who has done nothing wrong to me except attract the attention/appreciation of my male lover. A sexist society teaches me to see that woman as a competitor, as a superior, up-herself bitch who I need to 'bring down'. Demanding a better society means that I need to drag myself up, and see that woman as just another flawed person trying to get on in this horrendous cultural pressure-cooker. The most feminist thing I can do is be kind towards that woman, and also kind to myself, by remembering that a compliment aimed at someone other than myself is not an insult to me by proxy.
Because that's sexism's greatest secret. When we start liking ourselves, and start liking other women, then we really do pose a threat, one so great that all sexists can think to do to mask their fear of female unity is to make jokes about catfights.

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