24 May 2017

Polyamory is NOT the same as Polygamy, and other myths busted

Much as it seems counterproductive to give any airtime to an article* from right-wing conservative website The National Review, their recent piece about polyamory is so ridiculous that it simply cries out to be debunked. With the polyamorous lifestyle still emerging from the shadows and remaining unfamiliar to many, misconceptions about it still abound. There's still little enough information around about what it really means to be poly that an article entitled "Polyamory is Just a Modern Name for a Backwards Practice" risks being treated as a resource until it gets shown up for what it really is; ill-informed, sexist, heteronormative, biphobic, reactionary nonsense. 

*I've used DoNotLink so the article doesn't get the clicks for which it's so clearly trolling.

The premise of the piece is that pop culture excitement around polyamory means that a man having two female partners is being accepted as the cool, new, edgy thing, and it's actually a ruse to trick women into accepting lousy treatment from men. Erm...where to even start with this?

The major flaw with the article is that it treats polyamory (people of any gender having multiple, consensual relationships) as indistinguishable from polygamy/bigamy (which technically may mean someone of any gender having multiple spouses, but which in practice has usually been taken to mean a man having many wives - even the BBC appears to use it this way). The latter (and yes I know the proper word is 'polygyny' but it's so little used that I'm going to stick to using 'polygamy' in the manner that it's commonly understood) is most concentrated, or at least has historically been practised, in retrogressive religious communities/cults where women have little power, are seen as subordinate to men and raised to only be wives, mothers and housekeepers. It is pretty different from a woman who has her own job, house, money and full bodily autonomy (* raises hand *) deciding to have fun with more than one person (all of whom could even be women, because SHOCKER, lesbian poly women exist too) in an open, ethical manner.

The author has little evidence for her supposition that "women suffer" from polyamory. Heck, she has little evidence to offer regarding polyamory at all, apart from People magazine running an article about a polyamorous triad, the show You Me Her and a seriously exploitative, nudge-wink sounding documentary called Sister Wives. This hardly constitutes an explosion of polyamory, for a start, but rather indicates that the media is finally giving the poly community some attention because it's a new and sexy angle that they can work for clickbait. Also, none of these three things are the same. The first example is of a poly V, where two people are involved with the same person ('pivot') but not with each other. From what I can tell, You Me Her is an example of a poly triad, where all three people are involved with each other. And the last? Is an example of what I mentioned early - NOT polyamory, but polygamy - a patriarch using religion to justify having more than one wife and the wives accepting a subordinate position to him.

Funnily enough, no one in the poly community is trying to convince the mainstream that the latter is cool, or fun or edgy, because we know it's the opposite. Most of us are poly because we reject the restrictive structures imposed on our love and sex lives by heteronormative, sexist, religiously-based rules. We do not practise or endorse polygamy (in the way that the term is currently used and understood) because it is not ethical, egalitarian or in any way progressive. And frankly, I'm a little suspicious of any conservative pretending to be concerned about women being oppressed in polygamous households, because women subservient, domesticated and constantly pregnant seems to be exactly what conservatives want.

On to the next thing - the complete erasure of poly triads or Vs that involve two men and one woman. The author claims - again, with no evidence except a few carefully selected references to pop culture.
Nobody is asking for a show called “Brother Husbands.” Nine of ten pictures for polyamory involve one man with multiple women . . . Men may sleep around, but they don’t tolerate the degradation of being a part of a modern male harem, nor have they ever, really.
The author's hostility to the concept of non-monogamy is clear in their choice of pejorative terms such as 'degradation' and 'harem.' They presume that anyone whose partner is also dating others is being exploited and demeaned. They presume no one could really want or enjoy this. They presume that the person with multiple partners is only doing it for an ego boost. Sounds to me like a heck of a lot of monogamous conditioning at work there.

But that aside, it's simply not true that all poly relationships involve one man and multiple women. You want a pop culture example? How about the most recent season of Orange is The New Black, where celebrity inmate Judy King has both a boyfriend and a husband? Or the famous threesome in House of Cards where Frank Underwood and his wife Claire have a fun tumble with their Secret Service man, Edward Meechum? Or This is England '90, where Lol, Woody and Milky parent their children openly and communally, as a three? Also, I don't know what search engine the author was using, but when I googled Polyamory, I got four photos of poly quads showing two men and two women, two photos of a woman with two men, one pretty piece of art depicting a woman with two men, and one stock image of a man with two women. Perhaps there's a bit of selective searching and confirmation bias going on with the author?

That's not to say there isn't also a problem with cultural bias. Poly triads involving two women get more attention because the idea that two women together is every man's fantasy persists. Poly Vs, where the women both date the same man but not each other, get less attention (or aren't even considered as an option) because then there's no hot girl-on-girl action; or, they only get attention for the reason that this author is pushing - that two women 'sharing' a man must be miserable and jealous. There's no consideration of the idea that you can date, sleep with, love, share your life with more than one person and actually be happy that way. Or that not everyone wants the commitment of a full-time relationship (solo polyamory is definitely a thing) and that some women might be quite happy being able to share the load, emotion-, time- and sex-wise, of having a partner, with someone else. 

Also. Also also also. Bi men exist. Poly triads with two men exist. Poly Vs with two men exist. As do bigger, looser group arrangements where the number of men match or outnumber the women involved. The erasure of bi men, and the way bi women are fetishised yet their sexuality is not actually taken seriously (it's just something hot for a man to watch or get involved in!) is a problem in our society. A culture built around what men supposedly want to see doesn't know what to do about guys who have sex with both men and women - even though there are plenty of women who find man-on-man erotica very hot - so it pretends they don't exist. But if you're really going to dig in to what poly means and is, you need to do better than just repeating artificial cultural myths.

For me, as a straight poly woman leaning towards the 'solo' edge of polyamory, ethical non-monogamy has never felt anything but empowering. I've written elsewhere on this blog about how I believe polyamory forces one to deal with many of the barriers to feminism, by deconstructing the toxic climate which teaches women to be jealous of and mistreat each other in pursuit of a man and which shames women for owning and expressing their sexuality without shame. Solo polyamory also prizes independence, self-love and blazing one's own trail as an individual rather than as part of a couple, which I think is still something we can't promote enough to girls and women. When I was a teenager, I used to moon around thinking about The One who pop culture told me would come along and make everything better. Needless to say, I don't think like that any more. Now, I am happy to be my own One - while still enjoying both meaningful and more casual connections with some fantastic men. 

So yes, there may be 'unicorn hunters' in the poly community (couples aggressively/sleazily looking for a bisexual woman to 'complete' them in a way which fails to treat said woman as an equal part of the relationship) and a greater cultural bias against male bisexuality. There may be lousy and unethical behaviour in the community too, as there will inevitably be wherever you find human beings. But none of those problems has polyamory at its root - quite the opposite, in fact. The only times I've 'suffered' have been when my polyamory butts up against someone else's monogamy (or their failures with it - i.e. those who want to cheat rather than practise ethical non-monogamy) and the situation inevitably ends with no one getting what they want. 

So to call polyamory 'barbarism from the 1850s' in an article where it is presumed that what all women crave is a nice, heterosexual, secure, marriage to a man and that getting anything else must mean we are being exploited is pretty fecking ironic. Don't fall for this faux-concerned fake feminism - we know what we want.

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