Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘polyamory’

by Julia

A good male friend recently asked me what percentage of the television shows I watch fit into the category of “Women Who for Some Reason Embrace the Patriarchy.” Avoiding the cop-out answer that “all popular culture reflects the patriarchy,” I realized that it’s a pretty large percentage. Anyone who has lived with me or spent any time in front a television with me knows that when I’m not watching The Wire or Ravens football, there’s a good chance that I’m watching TLC or MTV. I was into Jon & Kate plus 8 before Kate went blonde, I started watching the Duggars when they were at 13 Kids and Counting (now at 20, I think?), and I’m pretty sure my college roommate and I threw a watch party for the premiere of 16 and Pregnant (long before there were domestic violence awareness commercials at every break during Teen Mom).

Disregarding the fact that having articulated that list kind of makes me want to self-revoke my college and high school diplomas, I observe that all of these shows revolve around women reproducing, and either reproducing a lot or reproducing at a stigmatized age – both of which are categories of reproduction that I have neither experienced nor known anyone to experience. There are a lot of class observations to be made here (Kiera, I’m totally going write that post on dialectics and Teen Mom), but I want to focus this post more on the latest addition to my television line up (no, not Boardwalk Empire, though it is amazing): TLC’s Sister Wives.

Sister Wives documents the lives of Kody Brown, his three wives – (l-r) Janelle, Christine, and Meri -and their 13 children in Lehi, Utah. They lead relatively normal lives – all but one of the children attend public school, they wear conventional clothes, etc – except they all live in the same house with three separate apartments for each of the women, through which Kody rotates on a schedule, sleeping with a different woman each night. At first, it seems like Kody makes a real effort to spend equal time with each of the women (his meticulous schedule helps him – vomit). But as the show progresses, it’s clear that there is some serious inequality going on, all of which manifests in major jealousy among the wives. The show revolves around the major plot twist: 16 years since his last marriage (to Christine), Kody wants to add another wife to the family – Robyn (far right).

This show got over 2 million viewers for the premiere, and with such viewership comes, obviously, scrutiny. The scrutiny wasn’t limited to the Today Show, however: Utah police are looking into possibly prosecuting the Brown family for bigamy. Not really surprising given the huge media attention, and with this whole law school thing going on, I didn’t pay much attention to the progression of the story. That is, until my Torts professor announced that he would be representing the Brown family. My professor, a constitutional law scholar, explains his reasoning here.

So my fascination with the polygamist, patriarchy-embracing family took on a legal flavor. I hopped on my legal statute search engines and dug up the history of bigamy prosecutions in Utah. Turns out, there aren’t many. The ACLU gives a great summary here, but basically it comes down to this: “a person is guilty of bigamy when, knowing he has a husband or wife, the person purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person.” In the case of the Browns, Kody is only legally married to Meri, his first wife, and he cohabits with the other three women, thereby falling under this statute. Historically, Utah courts have be hesitant to prosecute claims of bigamy unless there are allegations of other crimes in the relationship: rape, incest, child abuse, etc. (More on the definition of “crime” as construed under this statute in a bit.) The reason for turning a blind eye? The Fourteen Amendment and, ironically enough, the landmark civil rights case of Lawrence v. Texas (2003). In Lawrence v. Texas, a Texas law criminalizing sodomy  was found to have violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the court said “absent injury to a person or abuse of an institution the law protects, consenting adults enjoy the freedom to define their private intimate relationships within ‘the confines of their homes and their own private lives.'” This same legal principle contributed to the relative freedoms women enjoy under Roe v. Wade.

Is this a matter of “Bigamy! From the people who brought you anal sex and abortions!”? As you would imagine, it’s not quite that simple. But the protection of privacy (and, in this case, the expression of religious beliefs) is what allows consenting adults to partake in polygamist marriages, absent any other crimes. As the ACLU points out, these other crimes can and should be prosecuted under other statutes.

However, by criminalizing private, consensual, adult relationships that are motivated by sincerely held religious beliefs, we fail to live up to the constitutional promise that consenting adults be free to maintain and define their personal relationships without fear of government interference.

So that explains why my professor is representing them. However, this is the same professor who spent the first two weeks of law school talking about Hegel, Critical Legal Studies, Queer Legal Theory, and Feminist Legal Theory. So how does feminism fit into all of this? I believe it all comes down to whether or not something as nebulous as patriarchy can be criminalized (answer: it can’t…who writes and enforces the laws to begin with??). But should patriarchal exploitation be criminalized in relationships between (or in this case, among) “consenting adults”? It is clear that there’s some major inequality going on in this family. I think a lot of what I’ve observed is pretty easily surmised, so I’ll just include two select stories that epitomize the relationship.

On their twentieth wedding anniversary, Meri and Kody discuss some of the jealousy problems that arose when Robyn was added to the family. Meri asks Kody the question that I had been wondering throughout the series: “How would you feel about me taking on another husband, or having another male lover?” Kody’s answer: “The thought of you with another guy sickens me and seems wrong to me. I feel like you want me to admit that what I’m doing is unfair – and that’s just not an emotion I’m willing to address.” Wrong on so many levels, all of which come down to patriarchy.

The most disturbing quotation from that same scene came when Kody and Meri discussed having another child. Meri and Kody have one child together, a teenage daughter, and though Meri used to want to have more children, fertility issues have prevented that, and now she has decided she doesn’t want to try for more children any more. She tells Kody that she doesn’t want to do in vitro fertilization, at which point Kody smiles and turns to the camera and says, “I haven’t been told ‘no’ in a strong enough fashion for it to mean ‘no’ yet.” I think that pretty much epitomizes the problems encompassing the entire show. Consent in this relationship, it seems, is a one-time deal. All of these women did choose freely to enter into this relationship, knowing that they would take on more wives, etc. But when it comes time to add the new wife, there really isn’t any negotiation – it’s the Kody Show. And this type of inequality, writ large, is the Patriarchy Show. And guess what? It’s not limited to polygamist marriages.

I’ll leave the analysis on deconstructing patriarchy within heterosexual relationships to another time (or perhaps another person), but it is essential to recognize that inequality pervades all relationships if you don’t actively resist it. This doesn’t mean we should stop having partnerships, but it does mean we all need to work incredibly hard to live up to the name we give our interactions and truly act as partners. The clear problem in Sister Wives is not the polygamy, it’s the patriarchy. There is no negotiation, no consent-seeking, and, therefore, no equality. And that’s incredibly oppressive and detrimental to women.

But should the state be intervening to prevent exploitative, patriarchal relationships? I’m sure you could find some feminist legal scholars out there who would argue for the criminalization of polygamy on these grounds, but then how many monogamous relationships would crumble under similar examination? While it pains me to watch the jealousy that plagues these women in this incredibly unequal relationship, I can think of other reality shows that portray similar levels of misogyny within supposedly “normal” marriages – rife with cheating, deceitful husbands and crying women left at home wondering what she did wrong. And I can think of millions of monogamous, “real-life” relationships that lack communication and equality.

The answer, then, is not to try to criminalize inequality in marriages. From a constitutional perspective, it’s a complete invasion of privacy. From a practical standpoint, it’s impossible. And from a feminist standpoint, it’s just not the right route. We need to strive towards demanding equality in our relationships. This comes from empowering both men and women to seek and desire consent in every iteration of the word, and to desire equality in their relationships. Partnerships can come in many forms, and it’s not my role to judge someone else’s choice, how many partners they want to have, or whether they want to have any all. It is my role, however, to be concerned with the lack of consenting partnerships. A partnership is a grounds for constant renegotiation of boundaries. What one initially consents to should not be binding. What breaks my heart about this show, then, is not that these women are in a polygamist relationship, but that they are stuck, like so many other women, in relationships that no longer make them comfortable and no longer fulfill them. The way to rectify this situation is not to criminalize their partnership, but rather to empower women and men to strive for a world in which no one exists in a oppressive partnership, for at that point, it ceases to become a partnership at all.

Read Full Post »

by Julia

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.

Read Full Post »

by Julia

I spent the first week of winter break devouring Carole Seymour-Jones’s A Dangerous Liaison, a “revelatory new biography of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.” I ordered this book in September, but wanted the time to fully devote to its 540+ pages. Relative isolation in south Florida with my parents, iPod, and beach chair seemed an ideal setting for reading about the infamous 50-year polyamorous relationship between two of the most influential theorists of the 20th century. As a self-described theory nerd, though, I was most looking forward to accounts of Beauvoir and Sartre’s pillow talk discussions of philosophy and a comprehensive account of their individual development as existentialist thinkers. In this effort, the biography falls short. Instead, the detailed portrayal illuminates the complex arrangement of  ‘essential love’ that Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre entered into in the fall of 1929 in the Tuilerie Gardens of Paris.

Upon meeting Sartre at the École Normale in Paris, Beauvoir established an immediate intellectual connection with the young student of Gide and Hegel. Simone de Beauvoir became the youngest woman (twenty-one) to ever pass her final oral examination in philosophy, and the ninth woman to ever pass. When the rankings came out, in fact, only one student ranked higher: Jean-Paul Sartre, three years her senior. The educational hierarchy between Beauvoir and Sartre foreshadowed the subordination Simone would experience in all facets of their relationship. Seymour-Jones writes that “for the rest of her life, Simone de Beauvoir would consider herself second to Sartre.”

From childhood observations of her mother’s monotonous routine, Beauvoir vowed to never sacrifice her freedom for bourgeois domesticity. Sartre, too, maintained that “‘he was not inclined to be monogamous by nature’” and condemned marriage as a “‘despicable bourgeois institution.’”  One can imagine how confused Beauvoir must have been, therefore, when Sartre proposed marriage to her three times in the span of a few weeks. She vehemently refused, and critiqued Sartre for going against their philosophical ideals of individuality and freedom – what would later be called Existentialism. “The balance of power at this point lay with Beauvoir,” yet it was actually Sartre who proposed the idea of a “pact of ‘essential love’ which allowed for secondary affairs and was intended to guarantee their ‘reciprocal liberty’” – a pact which would become the template for a polyamorous relationship enshrined in existential history.

In Beauvoir’s mind, entering into this pact of essential love with Sartre was the most realistic embodiment of the philosophies which they professed in academia. Yet the realities of the relationship (which I will not bore you with) left Simone as the clear victim of patriarchal domination at the hands of a power-hungry celebrity. Going into this biography, I had an idea of the types of affairs in which Beauvoir and Sartre engaged; I did not predict the sheer number of simultaneous affairs, nor the heartbreaking effects of these relationships on Beauvoir. Even though the couple maintained complete honesty with one another (in a far more detailed manner than any person I know could stomach), jealousy and manipulation reigned for over four decades.

I want to focus this post on the mind-blowing contradictions between Beauvoir’s brilliant feminist theory and her polyamorous relationship with Sartre. Essentially, Simone fully bought into the idea that “whoever wants the ends – equality between the sexes – must want the means,” and she let those ‘means’ be defined by Sartre’s incredibly patriarchal interpretation of their pact of essential love. In retrospect, there were abundant signs of Sartre’s misogyny – his theoretical assertions practically drip with it. Though Sartre later delved into praxis, most notably in his affinity for the USSR and the student demonstrations of Mai 1968 (to be discussed later), his existential theories epitomize the danger of the male gaze.

“Sartre gives the example of a woman who goes out with a man for the first time; halfway through the evening he takes her hand. To leave the hand there is to consent to flirt; to withdraw it is to break the harmony of the moment. Her intention is postpone a decision, and so she leaves her hand ‘between the warm  hands of her companion – neither consenting nor resisting – a thing. We shall say that this woman is in bad faith.'”

Sartre likens this female “deception” to the actions of the bourgeoisie, and in Beauvoir’s shared goal of exposing hypocrisy within capitalist society, she agreed with her partner. The complete denial of female agency is exemplified countless times in Sartre’s violation of desperate young women (many of whom were cultivated first by Beauvoir in lesbian relationships). What Beauvoir and Sartre failed to realize was that their observations on the comportment of the bourgeoisie stemmed solely from their privileged position as academics and products of the petit bourgeois.

The same perspective of privilege led Simone and Sartre to develop a flawed affinity for the Soviet Union. When questioned by fellow existentialist Albert Camus on how he could possibly reconcile the murder of millions in Soviet gulags, Sartre responded that the camps are no more inadmissible than French colonialism in Africa or the state violence towards French workers. Sartre claimed that “the Iron Curtain is only a mirror, in which half of the world reflects the other. Each turn of the screw here corresponds with a twist there, and finally, both here and there, we are both the screwers and the screwed.”

It was not until the 1960s and the Mai 1968 student revolutions that a marked division developed between Sartre and Beauvoir in terms of their acknowledgement of their privileged (and flawed) perspective. Both theorists realized that in order “to merit the right to influence men who are struggling, one must first participate in their struggle.” This realization led Sartre and Beauvoir to express their solidarity with the movements and occupations both through their writings and physical presence in the Latin Quarter.

Sartre: “‘These young people don’t want the future of our fathers – our future – a future which has proved we were cowardly, worn out, weary…Violence is the only thing that remains, whatever the regime, for students who have not yet entered into their fathers’ system. The only relationship they can have to the university is to smash it.'”

Unlike Sartre, however, Simone de Beauvoir recognized much sooner the misogynistic realities of both the Soviet model that the worshipped and of the Mai 68 student occupations. “Beauvoir expected socialism to deliver sexual equality. It had not.  Even the gauchiste men of the 68 demonstrations did not treat women as equals.”  This crucial realization led to revisions of Beauvoir’s watershed work of feminist theory, The Second Sex. The basic tenet of The Second Sex is that all male ideologies are directed at justifying the oppression of women, and that women are so conditioned by society that they consent to this oppression. Instead of Sartre’s interpretation of this “consent” as “bad faith,” Simone removes blame from women and stands by her most famous statement: On ne naît pas femme: on le devient.

Regarding the 68 occupations, Simone remarked:

“’Men made the speeches, but women typed them. Men were on the soap boxes and on the podiums, but women were in the kitchens making coffee. So they got fed up with this because they were intelligent women…I finally understood that women could not expect their emancipation to come from the general revolution but would have to create their own. Men were always telling them that the needs of the revolution came first and their turn as women came later…'”

This quotation is heavily underlined and starred in my book not only because it was a turning point in Beauvoir’s feminist consciousness, but also because I can relate strongly to it. I know I’m not alone in having been encouraged to subordinate  female revolution “for the cause.” Once one realizes that the general revolution – be it state communism or campus activism – does not exist to serve the purposes of women, true liberation from the patriarchy is achievable.

Seymour-Jones correctly states that “there could be no more glaring contradiction than that between the principles enshrined in The Second Sex and her past practices with Sartre.” These contradictions frustrate me to no end. As a feminist and political theorist, I, too, struggle with the application of my academic passions to reality, particularly romantic relationships. Simone de Beauvoir undeniably maintained a relationship with Sartre which, with the exception of the first year, was driven completely by his desires. Though they experienced relatively equal acclaim in their professional lives, Beauvoir and Sartre’s personal life was clearly dominated by misogyny and overwhelmingly skewed power dynamics. Beauvoir had tried to avoid domesticity and patriarchy through her pact of essential love with Sartre, yet the reality of their relationship and the incredible despair that Simone experienced at times (she developed a collapsed lung from one particular incident of jealousy), makes it clear that she was no more liberated in her personal life then her stay-at-home mother was in the early 20th century. Misogyny – not equality – ruled in their relationship and in society.

My question to you, readers, is this: does this contradiction make Simone de Beauvoir any less important as the foremost Marxist-feminist? And, perhaps more relevant, can we, as women, ever truly escape the power of misogyny? Is there such a thing as a relationship with truly equal power dynamics? Even today in the 21st century, most women will argue that an open relationship benefits the man more than the woman. I will save the diatribe on polyamory vs. monogamy for another post, but suffice it say that what Simone de Beauvoir experienced in her relationship with Sartre did not result in the equality of the sexes which she strives for in her feminist texts. Can Beauvoir really be blamed for “talking the talk” of feminism and not “walking the walk” in her romantic encounters, given the underlying hegemony of misogyny in relationships?

I will leave you with our all-time favorite quotation of Beauvoir’s, from The Second Sex:

“The most sympathetic of men never fully comprehend women’s concrete situation. And there is no reason to put much trust in the men when they rush to the defense of privileges whose full extent they can hardly measure.”

Read Full Post »