I’m reblogging this post from the SdS Womyn’s Caucus Blog. It is written by a fellow student at UMD, Aliya Mann, who also happens to be a member of our new Women’s Collective. Aliya and I share a lot of the same feelings on polyamory within activist communities and concerns about how to reconcile existing relationship models with feminism. Feel free to comment!
By Aliya, College Park
* This is not meant to be offensive to anyone who is involved in or supports monogamous or polyamorous relationships- it is just my thoughts on the potential issues of both relationship models and my opinion that they leave little room for the existence of an alternative. I am speaking as a hetero-privileged cis-gendered woman involved primarily in heterosexual relationships.
That being said…
As feminists, we can effortlessly recite the laundry list of reasons why monogamy can be problematic- it is based on heteronormative ideals of relationships, it features marriage/children/establishment of home and family as the culminating events of the relationship (and marriage is a patriarchal, misogynistic, homophobic, and religious institution, while we’re at it), and it leaves little room for sexuality/sexual exploration outside of the confines of the relationship. So polyamory shines in comparison as the progressive, feminist, sex-positive alternative to monogamy, right? But indeed, polyamory has its issues, although it may provide more wiggle room than monogamy, and ideal polyamory has the notion of sexual liberation, choice, and defiance of gender roles and expectations built into it. But yet it often does not work, even within communities of progressive activists and radicals- so why is this the case? If everyone is open, honest, sex-positive, and most importantly consenting, then what is the issue? Why, if someone is not wanting a serious relationship, is into casual sex and dating, and supports alternative relationship models, does polyamory still feel uncomfortable at times?
– Male privilege and patriarchy: It seems like a lot of problems can be blamed on patriarchy, but for good reason, because it kind of throws a monkey wrench into everything. As much as men who are in polyamorous situations don’t want to admit it, they have privilege as males that needs to be recognized, openly communicated with to their partners and other people in their lives, closely examined, and checked. No matter if a man thinks a woman has the power in the relationship because- A: she can withhold sex from them/break up with them at any time, B: there are more women than men involved in a particular polyamorous situation, or C: the man has done everything possible to make the situation peachy keen- recognize that women wouldn’t be totally wrong for feeling powerless in poly situations. Women have been socialized to believe they are the weaker sex, have been told that their sexual liberation and freedom is wrong (or slutty, or whorish, or what have you), there continues to be a double standard for women who date and/or have sex with multiple partners, and many women have been taught since youth that they should aspire for only heterosexual, monogamous relationships inevitably leading to marriage and children.
– Exploitation: Men and the patriarchy often make it their aim to define and exploit female sexuality for their own gain. By equating polyamory with female sexual liberation and equating anything else (whether it be monogamy or something in between monogamy and polyamory) with being anti-sexuality and sex-negative, exploiters continue to define female sexuality for their own purposes and benefit. Women are often not taught that it is okay to be sexual and to explore alternative sex/dating/relationship models, and thus often do not have the words or ideas to define their sexuality in a manner that is easily understood or accepted by society. It is important for all individuals to be given the resources and opportunity to define and understand their sexuality for themselves, and their partners should only facilitate and encourage that learning process.
– Exclusion (this doesn’t directly apply just to poly relationships but to relationships in general): Women are often underrepresented within activist and radical communities and often feel unwelcome, so they may look for companionship with a more veteran member of the community. Sometimes this companionship/friendship can turn into a dating and/or sex situation, but even if this occurs with consent from both partners, it can still be damaging to the newer member if they feel like their only link to the group is through their partner (and this may be the case, depending on how exclusionary the group is).
– Sexism and misogyny: We know it goes on in purportedly progressive and radical communities, but are folks in the community, especially men, actively fighting and speaking out against it? It might not be said in the presence of women, but if hateful comments or rhetoric aren’t explicitly revealed in one form or another, they manifest themselves through other more subtle behaviors and actions that make women and other traditionally unrepresented or marginalized groups feel unwelcome, uncomfortable, and unwanted. An organization such as SDS, while not making women’s rights the focal point of its activism and work, would be wise to address issues such as sexism and misogyny in terms of how they apply to the larger scheme of its organization’s mission and how these can effect the inner workings of the organization itself. Capitalism largely operates by exploiting all marginalized groups, including women, and by maintaining societal power inequalities that continue male privilege and female oppression. If sexism and misogyny are not addressed by the community and/or the organization where it happens, then women cannot be faulted for feeling uneasy in poly situations that already have within them male privilege and the fear of exploitation.
– Consent: Verbalized, enthusiastic, open, honest, and non-judgmental consent is essential to any relationship, and especially so in a poly relationship, so this shit needs to be acknowledged and discussed on a reoccurring basis with partners. Women who participate in a poly relationship are not open or up for anything, but that is often the perception of outsiders who observe the situation (if they’re okay with that, they must be okay with anything!), although consent is never negotiable in any situation. If a community does not address the importance of consent and establishing boundaries, they do not put in place a framework to make women feel comfortable enough to engage in alternative and/or poly relationships. They also fail to develop resources and a foundation for dealing with instances where folks feel like their boundaries have been violated in any way or they have been mistreated by someone within the community.
So then, where does all of this leave those of us who don’t conform to either traditional monogamy or polyamory relationship models? I really have no clue, so I pose this question to anyone reading who has an idea. Why don’t we allow for as much exploration and openness with relationship models as we do (at least within activist and radical communities) with gender, sexuality, etc.? And if we do, we certainly don’t devote as much time to discussion about or exploration of these issues as with other important aspects of identity.
H/t to this piece for some great thoughts on the subject.