Nonmonogamy and Feminism: A Happy Couple

When I started reading about nonmonogamy, I began to realize that a lot of the appeal for me came from how closely it fell in line with my feminist beliefs. Because I’ve been socialized to see monogamy as the default, even within the feminist circles I’ve been part of, this seemed to me counterintuitive at first. But after a while, I realized that this was based on misconceptions of nonmonogamy and everything clicked in my head. There are two things in particular that helped me make this connection.

For starters, what I’ve heard, read, and witnessed over and over again is that nonmonogamy requires each person to be completely honest with themselves first and foremost. Each person must be open to exploring their needs, and must have a sense of what they want before taking action. So often in our society, we are expected to go along with things blindly. A set of rules exists that people hardly ever question. We are meant to follow a roadmap created centuries ago, even though the roads on that map have since changed or completely disappeared. We are led to believe that once you’re committed to somebody, you’ve now become one. Women especially are generally expected to put themselves last. They must worry about their children husbands, parents, jobs, household chores, etc. all before thinking about themselves. As feminists, we recognize that this should not be the case. And in a nonmonogamous relationship, this can’t be the case because you aren’t successful unless you’re navigating according to your needs and desires.

I realized another similarity between the ideals of feminism and nonmonogamy when I started talking to people about the dynamics of an open relationship. We would talk about jealousy, feelings of neglect, and worries of abandonment. It didn’t take long for me to figure out the real concern: possession. I find this to be a common block for people when they try to understand nonmonogamy. They become hung up on the idea that their partner belongs to them, and them alone. If their partner really loves them, then they have no business going around exploring feelings or impulses with anybody else. Why does he need to look at other women? Why does she need to have sex with other people? It seemed that the more I prodded my friends to get to the heart of the matter, it came down to a notion that somehow their partners were theirs and theirs alone.

This is obviously problematic. Each of us is an individual with our own autonomy, and the last I checked nobody owns anybody else anymore. This comes up in conversations about feminist relationships all the time. Many are against the idea of marriage and long-term partnership because of the sense that you lose your identity. Monogamy is structured in a way that makes it too easy to forget each individual’s autonomy. Before long, a loss of autonomy becomes the rule rather than the exception. Nonmonogamy, on the other hand, seems to hold autonomy up as one of the primary tenets.

Now, I want to be clear in stating that just because nonmonogamy holds up self-awareness, self-discovery, a lack of possession, and a sense of autonomy as the ideal does not mean it’s always practiced that way. I am not so naïve as to think that every nonmonogamous couple has got these things down. But it seems to me that the structure society has created for monogamy is not one that coincides as easily with what I’ve described.

I also want to be clear in stating that I don’t mean to say that these ideals are exclusive to nonmonogamy. Certainly, everyone should be striving for relationships where they are fully aware of their needs and do not see their partners are possessions. And of course there are monogamous couples who do not view themselves as one entity, but rather a pair of closely-bonded individuals. However, these are not things I see that often in monogamous couples, at least the ones I know. Maybe I just know the world’s shittiest monogamists, but what I usually see is a lot of jealousy (a rather unhealthy amount, if you ask me), a lot “we” with no sense at all of “I” (again, sometimes dangerously so), and a complete lack of internal communication. Not only are all of these things present, but so many people don’t see anything wrong with that, and that’s the problem.

There are other parallels I’ve seen, whether in theory or in practice — a shift in domestic burden from one partner to others (for those in triads, quads, etc.), a more equal balance of each partner’s needs, a willingness to negotiate priorities based on those needs, and so forth. But these are the ones that spoke to me the most. What I’d like to know is, for those of you who identify as feminists in open relationships, what made the connection click for you (if it happened at all)? And for those who don’t see open relationships as feminist, what do you see in nonmonogamy that conflicts with feminism?

(Cross-posted at Jump off the Bridge.)

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82 Responses to Nonmonogamy and Feminism: A Happy Couple

  1. Pingback: Nonmonogamy and Feminism: A Happy Couple [ Feministe ]

  2. Casey says:

    I think of nonmonogamy as a genre of relationship. The health or perversion of which depends more on the people who make up that relationship than with the format.

  3. Lisa KS says:

    I’m neither a feminist in an open relationship, nor do I see nonmonogamy as nonfeminist–I would say that it is whether or not you see your partner as a real person as opposed to a possession that makes your relationship feminist or nonfeminist–basically I agree with you, except that I don’t think that a nonmonogamous relationship is any more inherently or likely to be feminist than a monogamous relationship and you do seem to be implying that.

  4. SarahS says:

    Lisa KS,

    I think you are missing the point. She isn’t saying that poly relationships are more feminist then mono ones, she is saying that the theory behind polyamory is very compatible with feminism. Just like the ideas behind anti-racist work are very compatible with feminism, but that doesn’t mean that POC orgs are all feminist.

    I’ve been in feminist poly relationships (my current one) and decidedly un-feminist poly relationships (in the past). It really just depends on the people involved.

  5. Yes, what SarahS said.

    My point in writing this post was to address the concerns I hear from a lot of feminists (certainly the ones I’ve been speaking to), which is a lot of skepticism that nonmonogamy is really a feminist option.

    That said, I do think that there are things about the way monogamy has traditionally been structured that go against feminist visions. That’s nothing new, of course, because it’s the sort of thing that feminists have been fighting against since the “first wave.” From what I’ve observed (and I could be wrong because, again, I’m just starting out here), some of these things are not present in the basic structure of nonmonogamy. But, like I said in the post, all relationship styles are different, and each needs to be shaped by the individuals in that relationship in order for everyone to get what they need out of it.

  6. Lisa KS says:

    Well, I would say traditionally that relationships (between men and women) were structured specifically so that the women were monogamous and the men were nonmonogamous–the main cultural variant was whether or not the men were openly nonmonogamous or applied a thin veneer of pretend monogamy to their nonmonogamy. This relationship was clearly structured to go against feminist views, but it wasn’t the monogamy that was the problematic structure, it was that only one gender was expected/forced to practice it (and on the other end, there was often a great deal of social pressure for men to practice nonmonogamy even if it went against their personal inclinations as well).

  7. I discovered feminism as a systematic way of seeing and being in the world after I started to question what I eventually came to think of the imposed social institution of monogamy (as opposed to what it means to be monogamous in practice, in the specifics of a specific relationship where monogamy is a conscious, and perhaps even daily, choice), though the terms of my questioning would undoubtedly be called feminist, or perhaps proto-feminist, by most of the people I know today; and what started the questioning for me was the way in which socially imposed monogamy was shot through, both implicitly and explicitly, with the concept of ownership. The experience that brought the question home to me in a way I couldn’t avoid was quite harrowing.

    My mother, who was twice divorced by the time I was 12 (a fact that absolutely demystified traditional monogamous marriage for me before I fully understood what marriage was), invited her boyfriend to come live with us. (Or at least that’s what I thought at the time; once you hear the story, you’ll probably wonder, like me, if it was an invitation on her part or a manipulation on his.) At first, I liked him a lot. I never looked at him as a surrogate father, but he did sometimes feel to me like the older brother I sometimes wished I had. (I am the oldest child in my family.) Then the abuse started. At first, as far I could tell–and as far as I remember–it was verbal, though once he did put his fist through wall. I would lay in my bed at night–I was 15 or 16 at the time–and listen to him accuse my mother of cheating on him; he called her whore, slut, and all the other names you would expect; he insulted her as a mother, a woman, a human being.

    At some point, my mother got the courage to ask him to leave, and she left him a letter to that effect on the refrigerator. I have no memory, if I ever knew, of when he read it, or where she was when he read it, but at some point, I guess, they were talking about it, and he refused to go. I called the cops (and this was around 30 years ago, so their response, as you might imagine, was not what would be considered best practice today.) He took my mother hostage, threatening her with a butcher’s blade that he had. The cops came, negotiated her release and then had to spend I don’t know how much longer getting him to decide not to kill himself.

    That experience shaped me in many ways, but the one thing it brought home to me was the way in which the boyfriend’s sense of ownership over my mother was both a presumption on his part of a more or less absolute power over her and the source of an anxiety profound enough that he would threaten to kill her, the woman he claimed to love, and/or himself. I was 16 at the time, and what I knew then was that I never wanted to do to a woman what this man had done to my mother; it was only over time that I came to think in terms of not wanting the power that the kind of relationship this man had with my mother seemed to assign to him, at least in his own mind, and it was only after I started to read feminism that I started to understand that power as woven into the very fabric of the traditional, socially imposed institution of monogamy. I wanted no part of that, and that’s when I started to think seriously about nonmonogamy as an alternative.

  8. Theaetetus says:

    Do you see a difference (and if so what) between the term you use here – “nonmonogamy” – and what at least is a logically-equivalent term – “polygamy”?
    I’m curious as to why you chose the former rather than the latter. Is it simply due to the negative association with the latter term?

  9. debbie says:

    I get that this post is not intended this way, but it really does read (to me) as “poly is a more evolved choice/relationship style than monogamy. Of course it doesn’t have to be that way, and there are some enlightened monogamous people, but for the most part monogamous people see there are partners as objects that can be owned.” And when people have pointed out abusive or just shitty behaviour in poly relationships and communities, it gets brushed off as “of course there are assholes everywhere. Why would poly people be any different?”

    I get that people in non-monogamous relationships are a minority. That people take a lot of flak for being non-monogamous, that it can have serious real life consequences because of assumptions made about non-monogamous people (i.e., you’re all members of super-patriarchal cults like the FLDS church, you’re immoral, etc. etc.). So some of the behaviour that I am perceiving as defensive and dismissive may be intended to be affirming of people who live outside of the norm.

    I’ve spent a fair bit of time around poly communities, and I have to say that for the most part, the relationships I saw were no more healthy or evolved than those of most monogamous people that I have encountered. I saw a lot of coercive behaviour, mostly in the form of pressuring people into having poly relationships because they were more in line feminist/anarchist/anti-oppressive politics because desiring monogamy means that you want to “own” your partner, to objectify them by trying to make this individual meet all of your physical and emotional needs.

    And I’m seeing similar statements on the other thread going on challenged – things like, non monogamy forces people to grow and confront their insecurities in a way that monogamy doesn’t (always qualified by saying that of course some monogamous people do, but the sentiment is there), and I think it just mirrors this fucked up dynamic where things that are outside of the norm/subversive/whatever you want to call it are inherently better, more feminist, more radical than things like monogamy that are mainstream or expected. And I call bullshit. My life and my choices are not less examined or feminist than yours because I don’t want to have non-monogamous relationships. Frau Sally, maybe you really do know the world’s shittiest monogamists, because what you are saying about monogamy and monogamous relationships doesn’t match most of the monogamous relationships that I see – definitely some of the really unhealthy ones, but they are unhealthy for reasons that I suspect have little to do with monogamy, and more to do with fucked up ideals of romantic love (it’s dramatic! good relationships happen without any work, and so on).

  10. Technically, the word polygamy means multiple marriages. Polygyny is one man with multiple wives, and polyandry is one woman with multiple husbands. These are the sociological definitions of these terms.

    Nonmonogamy, on the other hand, does not necessarily have to be a marriage and it certainly doesn’t need to be one man, many women or one woman, many men. It can be dating, swingers, gay relationships, etc. Say, for example, that in my nonmonogamous relationship, I am married to a primary male partner, and have a secondary female partner, but neither of those partners have any other partners (they don’t even do anything with each other). This is a nonmonogamous relationship, but it certainly doesn’t fit the traditional definition of polygamy.

    Furthermore, polygamy is a loaded term in this country. When people hear the word polygamy, they think about Mormons with multiple wives, sometimes set up against the free will of the women. I would prefer to stay away from that image because what I’m talking about here is people willingly choosing to have multiple partners, however that is set up.

    There are instances where a relationship is comprised of one man spiritually married to many women (since you can’t legally marry more than one person, in the U.S. at least), or a woman spiritually married to many men. Those would fit the traditional definition of polygamy, but I’m not sure that they would call it that.

  11. DOH! I want to clarify that by spiritually, I don’t mean it has to be a particular faith — I just mean to say that it’s not a legal marriage, but one that they recognize as a real marriage. I should’ve phrased that better, but I’m an idiot and haven’t even had breakfast yet.

  12. Debbie, I understand what you’re saying and I get why it might read like that, not just to you but to many people. I suppose one thing I can say from my perspective and that of the people I’ve spoken to about this is that the “there are assholes everywhere” sentiment is not something I say to brush it off, but as a legitimate observation.

    There are people who think poly relationships are superior to mono relationships. And there are people who legitimately believe that anybody who chooses differently is fooling themselves or choosing the inferior relationship or something like that.

    Am I one of them? No, I’m not. I’ve had successful monogamous relationships and ones that only ended because we grew apart. I sincerely believe each relationship is a reflection of the people in that relationship.

    I think part of it comes down to what we’ve observed. I’ve observed mostly dysfunctional monogamous relationships like I’ve described in my post. Since I started talking to people in nonmonogamous relationships, I’ve observed mostly functional nonmonogamous relationships. Others have seen mostly functional monogamous relationships, and crappy nonmonogamous ones.

    So, for me, nonmonogamy seems like a great choice. It is more in line with my own personal beliefs and feelings about relationships (like what I mentioned in my intro post), and my feminist ideals, and I’ve seen it done healthily and successfully. But for you, monogamy seems like the best choice. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

    What I do find problematic are people who do not even consider nonmonogamy as an option, simply because they refuse to see anything beyond monogamy. They see the stereotypes of polyamory, swingers, etc. and don’t give it a second thought. Everyone should look at all of their options, give it a try and choose what’s best for them.

  13. Theaetetus says:

    What I do find problematic are people who do not even consider nonmonogamy as an option, simply because they refuse to see anything beyond monogamy. They see the stereotypes of polyamory, swingers, etc. and don’t give it a second thought. Everyone should look at all of their options, give it a try and choose what’s best for them.

    How do you determine that they’ve “refused to see anything beyond monogamy” as opposed to having decided that that’s what’s best for them?

  14. debbie –

    I’m right in line with FSB here. I chose poly because it was right for me. And in fact, being poly made my relationship with my husband (we were mono and went poly like 3 months before our wedding) stronger. It’s hard to explain how – I can’t quite put it in concrete terms – but it’s true. Being poly has also forced me to be more introspective in a way that I just didn’t have to be when I was monogamous. I’m being vague on that one because it involves airing some issues that I’d rather not in a public forum, but the short version is that I have evolved as a person and recovered from some emotional issues directly as a result of being poly. And that has been great.

    But I also don’t think that being poly is for everyone, and I think monogamy is a perfectly valid choice – just not the one for me. And part of it is resistance to what I saw growing up. All of my family members had monogamous marriages – and everyone was miserable. Everyone was dysfunctional. And I felt that was in part due to the rules they had chosen to impose on themselves through monogamy. So I decided to do things differently.

    I know that monogamy makes a lot of people actually quite happy, and so they should choose that. But I also know it does not work for everyone.

  15. debbie says:

    Right, I get that not everyone (including Frau Sally) is saying that non-monogamy is better. I’m saying that I’m seeing some people expressing those sentiments in the other thread, although at times, they are qualified.

    I don’t get why part of the response to my comment is a reassertion that non-monogamy doesn’t work for everyone, because I don’t think I implied that it did – and I find it a little condescending, just like monogamy. In fact, I think I was very clear that non-monogamy is as valid as monogamy, and recognized that many non-monogamous people experienced discrimination because they are non-monogamous.

    My objections to some of the comments have nothing to do with me not getting non-monogamy, and everything to do with being annoyed with the implication that non-monogamy is more evolved/feminist/whatever. Granted, I’m seeing less of this attitude in the comments to Frau Sally’s posts than elsewhere, but it’s been a pretty consistent experience for me in online spaces and IRL.

    From my perspective, the response I’m getting to my critique is “well, monogamy didn’t work for me, here’s why,” as if I just don’t “get it,” (and there are a hell of a lot of assumptions there about my life experiences), and I find that condescending as I already said, and it really misses the point of what I said above.

    Hopefully this comment has fewer typos than the last.

  16. Debbie –

    I think the problem is that, at least on this thread, I’m not seeing the assumptions and condescension you’re referring to, either in the post or in the comment thread. (Although there might have been some in FSB’s first post, but I was late to the party and just didn’t want to read 97 comments . . .) I am not very poly-involved online, and so have very little experience with poly people on blogs and message boards trying to proclaim the superiority of poly or judge monogamous people. Is it out there? I’m sure, I guess I just don’t know where to find it.

    98% of my discussions about poly take place face-to-face. Maybe that changes the dynamic. I have never *heard* any of my poly friends espouse judgmental beliefs about poly people, and maybe they’re not going to do that in a more public discussion. Maybe if they do it, they do it anonymously online. In which case, yes, they’re hypocrites, and if I find them I’ll call them out on it. I’m just not seeing in FSB’s posts or on this particular thread’s comment the kind of judgment you’ve seen in the past.

  17. debbie says:

    Sorry – I should have been clearer that I was referring to the previous post.

  18. debbie says:

    Or rather, some of the comments from the previous post.

  19. Theaetetus, I’m talking about the people that I’ve spoken to and the conversations I’ve heard about, not everyone in general. There are people who realize what’s out there and choose monogamy, and that’s completely okay. I might live this way for some time and realize that it’s not for me, as I previously thought. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But, in my experience, people just don’t let themselves go there. They give strange looks, keep on assuming and quickly dismiss it.

    Debbie, I’m sorry if my comment also included commentary not directly related to what you were saying. I suppose I was responding not only to your comment, but also having in mind the responses on this thread and the other thread, and emails I’ve been receiving. Sometimes my stream of consciousness sort of goes off track and I forget that I started out one way and am ending another.

    But redirecting to the idea that people frame nonmonogamy as more evolved, I think I’ll echo what Lisa KS said above — perhaps it’s better to look at it not as monogamy vs. nonmonogamy, but the gender roles that we’ve come to expect in monogamy.

  20. sophonisba says:

    Earlgreyrooibos, a lot of the worst derogatory comments came from monogamous people. There’s a direct analogy to the way childless/free people are socialized to express their preferences via coy deference: oh, I’m just too selfish to be a parent, I could never handle the responsibility, etc. Likewise: oh, I could never have an open relationship, I just don’t have enough to give, couldn’t handle the responsibility. Of course, poly people straightforwardly extolling the pleasures of their relationships is itself entirely unproblematic. If monogamous people feel defensive or inferior about their choices, I wish that they would express that defense in a way that does not run down the generosity and devalue the capacity of those of us who share their relationship style. Debbie is definitely not alone in seeing it.

    Disclosure: I was in an open relationship once. It was fine. I have been in closed relationships since. The health of these relationships wasn’t determined by the number of people in them, it was determined by whether or not all of the people in them were feminists. The open relationship was the only one marked by possessiveness of any kind, though it did not ascend to frightening or worrisome levels.

  21. Your article was posted to facebook and I loved it. I have been in a nonmonogamous relationship for 17 years with a partner who has been married to his wife for 23 years. I am godmother to their child as well. I was also married twice, one for 13 years and once for 11 years-both relationships started out mono and then about half way through became poly.
    True-many people pretend to be poly, which implies honesty, respect, commitment and more. It is hard work and sadly many, mostly men but not always, use it as an excuse to play around.
    I self-described in the 70’s as a feminist and switched to humanist as I got older; women definitely have been seriously oppressed but despite certain male privilege I could not see where men’s lives were all that good. In both marriages I started out as a strong individual and over time lost my sense of independent boundaries. That is somewhat inevitable when you have children; but the longer you are “blurry” the more your sense of separatness and independence declines. And if you are the lower wage earner or a stay at home worker the cultural imprint erodes your independence even further. Couldn’t marry my partner anyway, of course, but as a ‘mostly’ single woman I am clearer about who I am and what I need and how to communicate those things. And my expectations of my partner do not include “traditional” husband things because they can not. Some of them do happen, of course. We celebrate our anniversary, for example, and use the day to reflect on the past year and the year to come. Relationships are challenging to be sure, and my current one did overlap my 2nd marriage by several years, so I too had to balance husband, partner and children. And neither of my marriages ended because of being nonmonogamous per se though when emotions are running high and are painful, it is certainly part of the mix. I feel intimate and bonded with my partner and several friends, some women, some men. And the intimacy is very deep though nonphysical. Much of this life choice was painful to learn and as may be obvious has been distilled over several decades of life experience.

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  23. Kathleen F. says:


    perhaps it’s better to look at it not as monogamy vs. nonmonogamy, but the gender roles that we’ve come to expect in monogamy.

    Are these expectations of gender roles really limited to monogamous relationships, though? There are plenty of poly relationships wherein women are expected to be more nurturing, more caring, more selfless than men. Harmful gender roles seem to be a feature of heterosexual relationships, period. Whether a heterosexual relationship is mono, poly, open, closed, whatever, good communication and awareness of the power dynamic is absolutely necessary to keep those roles from hurting the relationship in general and the woman (or women) involved in it, in particular.

    It seems like the most important part of making sure that a relationship has a feminist dynamic isn’t so much which particular rules about extracurricular activities are in place, but instead just being aware of a) who has more power in setting up the rules (if the man has more power, that’s not good) b) who’s expected to enforce the rules (if it’s a woman who’s consistently expected to act as “gatekeeper” because men aren’t expected to control themselves, that’s not good) c) whether the rules apply equally to men and women (if men’s violations can be let slide because “that’s just how men are,” while women’s are seen as an outrageous betrayal, that’s not good).

    There are lots of ways to do a), b), and c) wrong, and IME they seem to happen at about equal rates in mono and poly relationships. The content of the rules is far less important than how the people in a relationship approach them.

  24. Danielle says:

    when I was in a monogamous relationship, at the start, I loved it, couldn’t even fathom non-monogamy(for myself). I think my jealousy comes in part from feeling-oh, he “almost” cheated on me? well damn, it’s because she’s got nice hair, clear skin, etc. The partner being with soemone else seems as though it would make me feel not good enough, and I would love to get past that, b/c i’m not sure how monogamy will work for me in the long term (only have been in one relationship).

  25. Liz says:

    Just out of curiousity, where do feminists who prefer monogamy fit into this perspective? I am absolutely pro nonmonogamy, for people who prefer such relationships, and I’m well aware monogamous heterosexual ones can be deeply screwed up, but I prefer to only be in a relationship with one person at a time and for that person to only be involved with me. Is there something inherently wrong with being a ‘we’, if that’s the conscious choice that you and your partner make?

  26. Eleanor Sauvage says:

    Kathleen, I think the thing is that there are models for monogamy everywhere: films, TV, magazines, newspapers, our parents, our friends, everywhere! That tends to mean that when people enter into a monogamous relationship, they think they know in advance what that means, and what their responsibilities to each other are, and what the other person needs. This isn’t compulsory, obviously, but it’s often the way it works, both in my experience and in my observations of others. With poly, I think there’s less of that, because there are fewer models for how the relationship ought, or will, work. This obviously can be problematic if people simply assume that all their needs that they had in mono relationships that weren’t fulfilled will be magically fulfilled in poly. But it does tend to allow a bit more space: because it’s a bit less mapped out, there’s a bit more space for actually talking about how to map it.

    This doesn’t make anything more enlightened or better or whatever than anything else, and as much as I know that there are poly folk who push that line, I can’t help but feel that there’s a fair amount of defensiveness at work in the reaction of monogamous people to the very conversation (as in, why does any thread about poly turn into this?). For me, it’s just that I think they’re situated differently in relation to existing relationship models, and that can allow more space for a relationship’s terms to be set by those involved rather than by the kind of relationship it is, if that makes sense? It’s been my experience; I acknowledge it’s not everyone’s, of course, and I can definitely see how heteronormativity can problematically shape poly; it’s just that it seems almost inevitable that heteronormativity will shape mono, at least to some extent, especially in the context of het relationships. But there’ll be more on my experience around shortly.

  27. Kathleen, I don’t think they’re necessarily limited to monogamy. What I think is that monogamy has been the norm for a very long time. Because of that, it’s sort of built up these expectations and the way things should be, the way people want things to be, etc. This applies not only to things like gender roles, but to positive ideas to like commitment.

    Meanwhile, nonmonogamy has only relatively recently become a legitimate option for many people. Because of that, there is a “norm” but it’s not as… concrete? I’m not sure how to describe it. Can anybody help me out here?

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  30. killjoy says:

    I prefer to only be in a relationship with one person at a time and for that person to only be involved with me. Is there something inherently wrong with being a ‘we’, if that’s the conscious choice that you and your partner make?

    I’d also like to know this. I don’t want to try out nonmonogamy — it’s not interesting to me personally. I like being part of a “we”. I like a certain amount of possession in relationships. Other people have suggested that’s a bit subby, and, well, it is; there’s a power relationship there, but I don’t see anything inherently wrong with being a bit subby.

    Feminism has not only opened up some spaces for consensual nonmonogamy, it’s made it easier for monogamously inclined straight women to control some the terms of the relationships we’ll be in — for example, a lot of women can now refuse to tolerate cheating who, perhaps, couldn’t do that before. (There is still, of course, lots of misogynist culture out there that celebrates deceiving and humiliating women, but at least it isn’t everywhere all the time.) Despite the problems many people have with monogamy (and I don’t mean to dismiss those problems), this seems like a good thing to me.

  31. ephraim says:

    in my experience with non-monogamy, it is not mutually exclusive with “being a ‘we'” there are some seriously couple-y people who do the “we” thing to various degrees…and also casually date or hook up with other folks on the side.

    i’d also add that another thing that non-monogamy can bring into the picture is forcing a reevaluation of the permanence or temporary-ness of relationships. i think among non-monog folks (and the scant few people i’ve met who identify as serial monogamists…which is sort of a form of temporally removed non-monogamy), there isn’t necessarily the sense that a relationship has “failed” just because it ended.

  32. As I read through these comments, a couple of thoughts/questions occur to me (and I apologize for the length of this comment, but the setup for my question is a long one):

    1. People have talked about the ways in which monogamy is far more visible (and I am going to make my location specific here; I don’t know where other commenters are from) in US culture, and so there are more models of monogamous relationships out there, etc. No one yet has commented on the fact that monogamy as a social, cultural and political expectation/institution is rooted in US religious culture and so, on a cultural and political level, has (and bestows) a moral authority that is just not available to nonmonogamy. In this way, nonmonogamy is, in itself, subversive–which does not mean its subversion is an absolute good or that it is necessarily, by definition, subversive, in theory or in practice, in ways that are obviously feminist/progressive.

    Monogamous relationships–no matter how progressive/subversive they might be in how power is shared, roles are filled, etc.–cannot be subversive in the same way. People in progressive monogamous relationships (which is, I know, a too-value-loaded shorthand) might be criticized by conservatives and other kinds of traditionalists for not following traditional models, but no one is going to say that theirs is a non-relationship or (especially if they have children) a non-family.

    My point is not that all true revolutionaries, therefore, need to be polyamorous; or that monogamy is, in and of itself, reactionary and therefore to be abolished. As people upthread have noted, relationships are relationships, and they are made successful or not by the people in them. My point is that when we talk about monogamy and nonmonogamy, we are not talking simply about the kinds of relationships people prefer, or the spectrum of relationships people might move through in their lives; nor are we talking simply about the images and models that are out there in the popular culture, in our legal system, etc. We are, by definition, calling into question the universal validity of one of the founding narratives of US culture which, whether we like it or not, boils down to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and then Adam and Eve exiled from the Garden of Eden.

    I would argue that this narrative, because it bears the moral authority of religion, is even more fundamental than, say, the Prince Charming narrative, or, say, romantic love; and I would suggest that we are, all of us, even people who are nonreligious, even atheists, more bound to this narrative than we think. If monogamy is, simply, one choice among others–and please remember, I am talking here on the level of cultural beliefs and attitudes, not personal desires, feelings, experiences–if there is nothing special about one man and one woman cleaving unto each other and going out into the “real” world to make a life and a family for themselves, in the face of all obstacles, etc. and so on, then what’s point? There might as well be no rules, no boundaries, because once the family rooted in a monogamous marriage ceases to be the fundamental building block of our society, then–to borrow from Yeats–there is no way the center can hold and everything will indeed fall apart.

    I just think that it is hard not to carry some version of this narrative if you have grown up in the United States, and I think this narrative is very often the unacknowledged deep, deep subtext that is at work when people start talking about the differences between nonmonogamy and monogamy in ways that suggest one is somehow superior to the other.

    2. Which brings me to my question: Everything I have just laid out, obviously, is rooted in either a US Jewish or Christian religious/cultural perspective. I am wondering about how the discussion that is taking place on this thread plays out across cultures. I realize that the people commenting may in fact already be a multicultural mix, and so I am not talking necessarily about people’s individual identity, but rather about whether the underlying narratives of other cultures give discussions of monogamy and nonmonogamy a different shape.

    I have more to say, I guess, but this comment is already over long, so I will stop here.

  33. Marcy Webb says:

    Whole idea of “open relationship” and “polymonogomy” and “non-monogomy” all seem counter-intuitive to me. Why be in a relationship at all when it’s about serving one’s own needs? You don’t need to be in a relationship if one is going to sleep around with other partners. Why have a relationship as a cover, if sleeping around is the underlying agenda.

    Say what you will, but, to me, it’s bullocks.

  34. Marcy Webb, have you been following the threads? For one, not every open relationship is structured in a way that the partners have sex with other people. And even for the ones that are, it is usually not some sort of sexual free-for-all where the only thing each partner is doing is working, eating, sleeping and having sex. This is a misconception and stereotype of what nonmonogamy is.

    Your comment that the relationship is “a cover” is also inaccurate. A cover would suggest that you intend to do one thing, but are actually doing another. Nonmonogamy is consensual and the rules are usually agreed upon together before anything else happens. There is nothing to cover because everyone in the relationship knows what’s going.

    I also don’t understand the sentiment behind this: “Why be in a relationship at all when it’s about serving one’s own needs?”

    Why wouldn’t one focus on one’s own needs in a relationship? If you don’t know what your needs are, how is your partner going to meet them, and vice versa? How are you ever going to feel fulfilled in a relationship if your needs aren’t being met? If that’s the case, why be in a relationship at all?

  35. Marcy Webb says:

    @FSB I appreciate the clarification on your position, but, I still think it’s bullocks.

    Re: focusing on one’s needs: I mis-typed. Of course one’s needs are important in a relationship. My error. However, why bother to be in a pseudo-relationship if it’s not about monogamy? This doesn’t seem intelligent to me.

    Rather than use the term, “relationship”, which is a misnomer if it’s not monogamous, let’s call it what it really is; playing the field. If what one wants is multiple partners, don’t enter into a relationship.

  36. Well, a relationship is merely an emotional or sexual connection between people. Nowhere in the definition of the word “relationship” does it specify that it needs to be two people. Personal definitions of the word might call for only having two people in a relationship, and that’s what we know as monogamy, but the word itself isn’t limited to that. Therefore, the term relationship can’t be a misnomer, because that’s still what it is.

    And it’s just a matter of preference and opinion at this point, but there isn’t anything wrong with entering a relationship with someone you care about if you both agree that you want multiple partners – sexual or otherwise. Having more people to love, fulfill your needs, care for, explore your sexuality with, or whatever doesn’t make the relationship any less real.

  37. Li says:

    I think some of the structuring of the discussion around whether people are saying that one of monogamy/nonmonogamy is better than the other highly problematic. In particular, some of the framing suggests that the two occur on an equal footing, as if talking about the value of nonmonogamy inherently sets it above monogamy. I don’t think that this equal footing is actually there. As several people have raised, we are trained from a young age to view monogamy as the norm, in fact, as the only potential relationship.

    Now I’m not saying that the way we are taught about relationships doesn’t completely suck and undermine people who negotiate their monogamy, but it does produce additional work and shit for people in nonmonogamous relationships to deal with, and some of this additional work is inherent in engaging in a nonmonogamous relationship in a way that it absolutely not inherent in engaging in a monogamous relationship.

    For nonmonogamous people, the question “do you have a partner?” is often fraught with complications. For myself, I often find myself answering “it’s complicated” even though my relationships aren’t complicated at all. It’s just the process of answering the question that is. Far from being a minor convenience, this builds up over time and along with all the other stuff to be a major headache and a substantial timewaster (take a guess at how many people just accept the “it’s complicated” answer). And this is only the tip of a very big normative monogamy iceberg. Case in point; Marcy’s comment.

    I’m not going to bother listing all the reasons why the way in which society views nonmonogamous relationships isn’t particularly great, and how this impacts on people in those relationships. But understand that when you ask whether nonmonogamy is feminist, at least part of the answer lies in the affinity between people for whom the normative structure of relationships kinda sucks. I think, for instance, that there are reasons why there are higher levels of negotiated nonmonogamy among queer people (yeah, so that’s a can of worms).

    Anyway, I’m sorry that I can’t express myself more coherently at the moment.

  38. Marcy Webb says:

    @FSB I guess this is where I part ways with you and others who believe as you do. I suppose we can justify anything, on the mere premise that we do what we want to do, as long as it isn’t hurting anyone. I don’t subscribe to this line of thinking, but, for me, this where non-monogamy falls.

  39. Daisy Bond says:

    RJN: Conservatives never say that married, monogamous same-sex couples with kids are non-families?

  40. Li says:

    Daisy Bond: I understand where you’re coming from, but I don’t agree with the conflation. The fact that similar tactics may be used in diminishing queer and poly relationships (the non-relationship argument) does not mean that those tactics are for the same purpose. Heterosexism and normative monogamy are linked, but they aren’t the same thing. Identifying that heterosexism affects monogamous queer couples as well as poly ones does not invalidate the argument that RJN was making.

    I’m more interested in looking at the ways in which nonmonogamy in the queer community is used as an argument to perpetuate heterosexism. ie. one of the reasons that same-sex couples are non-families is that they all *must* be dirty nonmonogamists/promiscuous.

  41. Daisy Bond says:

    Li — I completely agree that heterosexism and normative monogamy aren’t the same thing, and I wasn’t trying to invalidate RJN’s entire argument. I was responding to one very narrow point. RJN said (emphasis mine), “People in progressive monogamous relationships […] might be criticized by conservatives and other kinds of traditionalists for not following traditional models, but no one is going to say that theirs is a non-relationship or (especially if they have children) a non-family.”

    This is simply untrue. People say or strongly imply that monogamous same-sex couples are in non-relationships, and that their families are non-families, all the time. It’s the single most popular tactic of heterosexist conservatives. How could “family values” mean anti-gay unless gay couples’ families are non-families?

    RJN’s statement is true of monogamous straight couples, but he didn’t say that; he said “people in progressive monogamous relationships.”

  42. Li says:

    Daisy, thank you for clarifying. I agree that RJN should have qualified that statement. I’m just quite sensitive because I’ve been having a large number of discussions recently where my failure to fully qualify every one of my statements has been used to deflect the point I was trying to make, which is why I tend to get super disclaimery (and still get deflected. damn). And in the spirit of that super disclaimeryness, I’m not saying that that is what you were trying to do, I think your point is entirely legitimate, I’m just trying to express why I got a bit frustrated.

  43. Daisy Bond says:

    Hey, no worries — rereading it I think my original comment was kind of snarky. I should have been clear that I agree, strongly, with the bulk of RJN’s post; I know that this is a sensitive issue for people and reasonably so. Apologies for the miscommunication. : )

  44. Li, thanks for your comments. This in particular:
    some of the framing suggests that the two occur on an equal footing, as if talking about the value of nonmonogamy inherently sets it above monogamy. I don’t think that this equal footing is actually there.

    I suppose this is the frustration about having these discussions, as I’m starting to learn.

  45. Meg Que says:

    When I see people making such arguments as Marcy does, I cannot help but feel sad for their relationship. There is so much more a relationship can be than just not having sex with other people. If you think the “only” reason to enter into a relationship is that I think you are missing out on a great deal.

    I love my wife very much. We fully intend to be together for the rest of our natural lives. We support each other on all levels, emotionally, physically, as parents, for better for for worse. And there has been a lot of both. We are in a relationship because we love each other, because we are still in love with each other.

    Being in love with each other, however, FOR US, is not about restricting the other person in anyway. Not who we sleep with, not who we have sex with, not who we form strong emotional connections to. This openness has served us very well, and has helped us form the very strong bond we have today.

  46. B says:

    I’m sorry if this is long and/or rambly…these are just some thoughts provoked by reading the post and comments, so I hope they’re sufficiently on-topic if also a little bit random…

    I think the image of the traditional family that RJN talked about is definitely still around and putting unfair pressure on people outside the norm. My experience has been that there are always pockets of people – out or hidden to varying degrees, depending on the social environment – who have agreed to a nonmonogamous relationship despite this norm. Some social circles are more progressive than others, but there are places that are very hostile places to people seeking or in nonmonogamous relationships. I recently moved out of state for college, and the impact social environment has on me and the people around me has really surprised me as I have become a part of a different local community.

    I’ve felt that the people most open-minded about nonmonagamy are also the people who are the most open-minded about others’ different ways of having relationships in general. For instance, I’ve found that the GLBT community has been generally welcoming to nonmonogamous relationships, especially when bisexuals are vocal and present (because, although not all and not necessarily even a majority of bisexuals are nonmonog, most of us at least think through the possibility and decide for ourselves whether we want one relationship at a time or if we want more in some other capacity, because most of us have that moment where we think “do I want boys AND girls, at the same time, or one at a time?” – so we tend to recognize the legitimacy of wanting both, even if that is not what we personally want).

    I’ve also found that communities welcoming to GLBTs are also more open to nonmonagamy, for example, certain liberal academic communities (which have their own problems – but any sincere academic should have respect for alternate views and left-leaning folks tend to be able to recognize that judging someone for their consensual, personal relationships is unfair). Even professors and students trying to engage oppression issues can make missteps, but there are a lot more allies among people consciously studying multiple sides of a given issue, as is often required in academic settings (again, I’m talking about people who actually take this seriously – I’ve worked with a lot of grad students and professors who really care about and are active in making their communities welcoming spaces). This general open-mindedness seems to spill over in many cases into accepting that people are going to have the relationship models they want to have, so some academic circles can be mostly-safe places.

    At the same time, the traditional college social scene can be really weird about nonmonagamy. The “traditional” model of husband and wife seems to have been transformed into the model of the boyfriend and girlfriend, in that it’s the ideal people are supposed to aspire to. Some people pursue this model, while others invert it and adhere to the new model of No Strings Attatched hookups. Both of these models seem to have pretty strong mainstreams in the college environment, and I feel like they reflect two sides of a double standard that’s still going on, where you either have to be so masculine about sex that you can’t express any feelings (“having sex like a man,” partially liberatory by allowing active female sexuality and partially socially imposed and with its own rules), or feminine about sex (ie, you want one boyfriend, period, and sex is all about emotions or maybe you don’t really want it anyway, so maybe you’re a prude). Nonmonagamy is sanctioned insofar as it is about sex, but it is strictly culturally policed: threesomes are okay, but only if it’s MFF; if you want to do it, but it’s socially impermissable, do it and blame it on being drunk; if you want multiple partners, it better be only for a single night and for the purposes of sex, etc.

    These norms are less present in socially liberal circles, but the ideals of the college mainstream mirror the ideals of the dominant culture in many ways, in my experience. I know there are other college communities where this may not be the case – historic women’s colleges, historic Black colleges, small liberal arts schools, etc – but it is the case in many places and it is oppressive. Sororities and fraternities drive this in part, which is sad to say because I think they can have a positive role in college communities, but sometimes it seems like half their activities are devoted to couple-ing people off (formals and mixers) and the other half are devoted to facilitating hookups (parties).

    What I’ve found to be interesting is that there seem to be some ordinary people who follow the mainstream to an extent but also step away from it sometimes, and sometimes nontraditional relationships emerge organically, separate from labels and communities. This kind of organic openness sometimes grows into a small community, as people begin to re-write relationship rules.

  47. Butch Fatale says:

    It’s easy for commenters like RJN to center heterosexuality when, with rare exception, this entire conversation has centered heterosexuality.

    Also, GLBT is an acronym, not a noun. I am not an LGBT. I’ve never met anyone who identifies as LGBT. Can we talk about LGBT folks or LGBT people, please? Also, B, how many LGBT communities have you been in where bisexual people are not present? None, because then it’s not an LGBT community. it’s an LGT or LG community (depending, of course, on whether there are trans people in that community).

  48. Li says:

    Hey Butch Fatale. I spent ages figuring out how to respond to your points and still haven’t figured it out, but whatevs.

    I agree with you that this discussion has at times centred heterosexuality. I think part of this comes from the terms in which the discussion was framed, and implicit assumptions about what those terms entail. That is, the assumptions that discussions about the feminist nature of particular personal relationships deal only in relationships with at least one man and at least one woman partner. I don’t agree that this is the case, so I’d be interested to talk about heterosexism informs our understandings of monogamous/nonmonogamous relationships and how that relates to the question of how nonmonogamy fits with feminism.

    If we’re going to play alphabet soup though (which I may not be a big fan of in the first place), can we please not forget the IQA? I’m kind of bored of being the invisible Queer.

  49. Butch Fatale says:

    Hi Li, I was responding to a particular comment that used that language. I’m not particularly interested in playing alphabet soup at all; I find it really limiting and frustrating. I’m also not really included in LGBT, but if people are going to use that phrase, they should use it right.

    And yes, posting a heterocentrist blog will indeed encourage heterosexist comments. That was exactly my point.

  50. Marcy Webb says:

    @ Meg Que – To clarify, I never said that one enters into a relationship for the sole purpose of having sex, and don’t think my comments stated or suggested this. Which is precisely my point. Why does one need a relationship if she desires to be with multiple partners? Again, I don’t consider that a relationship. I consider that a single woman engaging in multiple encounters – sexual or otherwise. For me, a relationship is monogamous.

  51. Li says:

    Hey Marcy, just like to point out how someone who has poly relationships might read your comments (like oh, me for instance).

    “serving one’s own needs” – you’re just being selfish.
    “sleep around” – you’re just slutty. (hey, I actually have slut pride. yay me.)
    “underlying agenda” – you’re being manipulative.
    “pseudo-relationship” – you’re lying when you say it’s a relationship that has value. It’s not real.
    “doesn’t seem intelligent” – you’re an idiot, and so are all of your partners and lovers.
    “misnomer if it’s not monogamous” – you’re lying again. It’s still not real. Also, you’re an idiot because you can’t use the language properly.
    “playing the field” – and you’re still slutty.
    “we can do what we want to do” – you’re just being selfish.
    “a relationship is monogamous” – and now we’re back to you being an idiot. I bet all that slutty selfish sex has rotted your brain.

    You want to know why I’m taking it like this? Because I hear all those messages all. the. time. I have lost count of the number of times friends have told me that they found it (think they will find it) harder to come out to their parents as poly than as queer. Restating for emphasis. Harder to come out to their parents as poly than as queer. Cos poly people are stupid selfish sluts (still got slut pride, yay me some more), oh and being poly also makes you a Bad Queer.

    So continue to tell me all the things I’ve heard over and over again, cos all I hear is; “My opinion is more important than what you are telling me. I am not interested in change. I am interested in shaming you.”

    Please investigate your privilege.

  52. Eleanor Sauvage says:

    Marcy, I think it’s also important to think about what you’re saying: you’re saying that women ought to choose between ‘sleeping around’ and a relationship. Setting aside the fact that ‘relationship’ is a lot broader than you seem to be imply, why, exactly, are those two mutually exclusive? What is the problem with having a committed relationship – by which we might imagine cohabiting, shared responsibility for day-to-day living, support for each other’s goals, care, love and sex, for example – which also allows you to have relationships with other people, where you might have sex, but you might not cohabitate, and you might not share responsibility for day-to-day living? How exactly is that impossible? And I think it’s really problematic to suggest that either you want to be in a relationship or you want to sleep around. Obviously some people want both. Obviously some people make both work. Why is that ‘bullocks’ (I think you mean bollocks, btw).

    And I have to say, Li’s right: there’s a lot of slutshaming going on in your comment. Which is incredibly problematic on a feminist blog, where one would think we’re critiquing the idea of the madonna/whore distinction.

    Butch Fatale, I was edgy about the het-ness of this discussion too. On the one hand, I think Li’s right in that heteronormativity and monogamy are heavily bound up together, so at some level, when people are discussing mono and poly, it winds up being characterised that way. That’s reflected by the queer circles I move in, where open relationships are probably dominant. On the other hand, it doesn’t do justice to many poly relationships, to have this conversation be so het-focussed. And more than that, it doesn’t examine how and why heteronormativity can be reflected in the monogamy of some queer relationships, and that this is sometimes emphasised in order to reinforce the legitimacy of those relationships. As RJN points out, monogamy isn’t on an equal footing with nonmonogamy, and that intersects, as Daisy pointed out, with queer politics in really important ways. It’s easy, I think, to treat the mono/nonmono discussion as if it’s simply about relationship ‘choice'; but that can often efface the political and legal situations of poly people and queer people in the context of institutionalised heterosexual monogamy. And yeah, I kinda wish that was a conversation we could have here…!!

  53. B says:

    Sorry for the language slip, I was writing that comment pretty fast. The qualification about “present and vocal” bisexual voices was intentional. I included that part because mere presence doesn’t always indicate active participation. Some bisexual people still feel distanced from GLBT culture – the addition of letters to an acronym doesn’t always remedy feelings of exclusion or non-representation of one’s interests in a larger movement.

  54. B says:

    Sorry, LGBTIQA.

  55. don’t consider that a relationship. I consider that a single woman engaging in multiple encounters – sexual or otherwise.

    So even if that woman is married to her partner, deeply committed, has children, the whole nine, and also has relationships with other people (also committed), she’s single? I just don’t understand how that makes any sense.

    And the first thing that comes to mind when you say that is the vision of homophobics with gay family members. “Hi, this is my brother and his friend…” when, in reality, the two are married or something.

    There is a difference between saying “for myself personally, a relationship must be monogamous” and saying “it’s not a relationship if it’s not monogamous.”

  56. Meg Que says:


    Who are you to decide if I am single or not? Please don’t couch this in the terms of ‘she’. This is ME and MY relationship we are talking about. Are you trying to tell me that my commitment, our names on the mortgage, the obnoxious ‘domestic partnership’ card I have to carry around in my wallet, our child, ‘to death do us part’, taking each other’s last names, ‘through sickness and health’, me living with her parents in the basement, our marriage… all this is completely null and void because it doesn’t fit into *your* narrow-minded world view?

    So if exclusive sex doesn’t define a relationship, then why do you claim that two people who don’t have exclusive sexual relationships don’t have a relationship? That’s sounds pretty defining to me.

  57. Marcy Webb says:

    @ FSB Actually, I can accept two people in a committed homosexual relationship. I’m just having a very hard time wrapping my mind around nonmonogamy. Just cant get there. And, if this makes me less of a feminist, I am able to live with that.

    There is a difference between saying “for myself personally, a relationship must be monogamous” and saying “it’s not a relationship if it’s not monogamous.” @ FSB Again, point made, respected, and taken, and appreciate the calling out.

    @Li @ ES Shaming? Slut-slamming? I am sorry for the way I expressed my feelings on the topic, and for showing disrespect. I appreciate your calling me out. Point made, respected and taken.

  58. Marcy Webb says:

    @Meg Que As I said to ES, FSB, and Li, I admit and acknowledge that yes, my point of view re: relationships is much narrower than your view. I accept that. I also accept that, in my attempts to understand, I have expressed myself in a way that was disrespectful to you, and to ES, FSB and Li, for which I apologize.

  59. Dw3t-Hthr says:

    Two weeks ago, I made a transfer to hospital due to meconium in my amniotic fluid. While my legal husband wrangled with the necessary paperwork for our unexpected encounter with the medical profession (we had been planning a midwife-assisted homebirth), my other husband supported me through my contractions; their other wife handled all the communication with the outside world and helped communicate my desires for minimal intervention to the medical personnel.

    When I finally reached the end phase of labor, one of my husbands helped support my leg for each push, and the other held me with my head resting against his shoulder to support me and keep my muscles working in the right direction. And, again, while the medical profession took care to make sure my daughter was healthy and not harmed by the condition that had led us to enter the hospital in the first place, under the supervision of one parent, I was not deprived of care and comfort while waiting for them to bring her back to me.

    And now, with the other half of our family temporarily living with us, my daughter has the loving care of four parents, and all of us are pretty much getting enough sleep. I have been held and comforted through my baby blues without worrying that she was shorted on care and supervision. I have watched one of my husbands melt with love for my little girl, and the other, more stoic one just stare at her in affectionate fascination, and I have never in my life been more in love with either of them.

    If these are fake relationships, just playing the field, getting laid rather than something genuine, well, I’m pretty satisfied with my cheap plastic knock-offs of a real family.

  60. Eleanor Sauvage says:

    As would I be, Dw3t-Hthr! Congratulations on your daughter’s birth, and I’m so glad for you that you’ve had so many loved ones around you at this time. I’ve never had a baby, but I’ve seen the effects of sleep deprivation on new parents, and, truly, it makes the whole thing seem so very hard! And thanks for sharing your story.

  61. chava says:

    So, here’s my beef with poly as “feminist”–the majority of poly relationships I have seen (NOT all of them by any stretch, of course) simply re-duplicate many of the dodgy gender dynamics of mono relationships, wherin the phallus becomes all important.
    For example, the “one penis policy,” where the woman in a poly relationship may sleep with other women, but not men, and since fair’s fair, the (het) man gets to sleep with other women as well. Or the oft-popular “no vaginal sex with anyone but ME” policy. Or the pressures others mentioned above, where one partner–often but not always the woman– is pressured into poly as the “more progressive” choice and shamed if they do not choose it.
    Personally I believe there are mono people and poly people, it seems very like a kind of sexual orientation to me. Poly does hold a great appeal for me, but fundamentally the amount of sheer time and emotional energy poly relationships take is too much for me. I simply CANNOT dialogue that much, and I don’t understand how ya’ll poly folks manage!

  62. chava says:

    Oh, and congrats DW3t! Sounds like you have a lovely family on your hands there. I think you bring up a wonderful example of the degree to which the “proper” nuclear family as a concept places an unfair heap of expectations vis a vis childcare on women!

  63. (Taking his foot out of his mouth.) Thanks, Daisy Bond, for pointing out that I neglected to include in my previous post any mention of how different the experience of same-sex monogamous couples is–and the difference in how conservatives see them–from heterosexual monogamous couples. Not only was it (inexcusably) careless of me to leave that out, but including it would have strengthened my point, i.e., that the controlling narrative is the one about the very particular as-read-interpreted-and-understood-by-most-religious-authorities-Adam-and-Eve model of monogamy (because there are ways of reading the Adam and Eve/creation-of-human stories that don’t lead to, or at least undermine, the traditional heterosexuality that they are usually interpreted to enshrine) and not simply one about monogamy. Recognizing the difference between traditionally heterosexual monogamy and monogamy in the context of this discussion suggests to me that perhaps some of the social and cultural resistance to nonmonogamy comes from the same place that social and cultural resistance to accepting homosexuality comes from: it is not “natural”–and I am using “natural” here to mean what many religious leaders in my experience mean when they use the term: God-given or at least God-commanded.

    I do not mean by this to suggest that nonmonogamy/polyamory is “like” homosexuality in the sense of being an orientation or that nonmonogamous people suffer from oppression or discrimination on anywhere near the scale that GLBT people do. Rather, I just want to point out that the same, or similar, deep-seated controlling narratives are at work in the way both groups are rejected by mainstream/traditional culture/society. It is very late and I need to sleep, so I am not sure where, if anywhere, to take what I have just said. So I will stop here.

  64. Li says:

    Hey Chava,

    I kinda wanted to draw on a couple of points you made, in particular the point that poly seems like a kind of sexual orientation. I’m not sure exactly what you were trying to say with that point, but it sparked off a few points in my head, so I’m just going to work from there. If we’re going to look at poly as a kind of sexual orientation, then I don’t think that all orientations are constructed as equal.

    I live in Australia, and the case here is that people are simply not taught to view polyamory as a legitimate, or even possible choice by any communities other than ones in which polyamory is already present. The result of this is that people’s ability to engage in poly relationships is pretty generally crippled from a young age. Poly people have to unlearn a bunch of myths before it even becomes possible for them to be poly (number one, that monogamy is the only possible relationship structure).

    I point this out to draw a distinction that I think is important. When partners engage in the activities you outlined (and I’m not going to make the mistake of disavowing the bad poly kids, they’re out there), they mobilise sexism and heterosexism as tactics of control, and they thus recreate them. But those tactics are inevitably mobilised against poly people by society by virtue of them being poly. Society pressures people to be in monogamous relationships, and shames them if they engage in nonmonogamy. Not just individual partners.

    So I think that the question of whether poly relationships are feminist is a false one, because it assumes that it’s about how feminist individual poly relationships are for individual women. I think the better questions are over how the social structures of heterosexism, sexism and normative monogamy impact women’s personal relationships (and potential relationships) and the role that polyamory as a political struggle has in addressing those structures.

    I’m in a weird headspace, and I’m not sure how much that makes sense or if I even agree with my own points, but that’s kind of where I’m coming from at the moment. I think I’ll go back to lurking for a bit.

  65. Eleanor Sauvage says:

    Li, I totally agree with that second last paragraph (but that’s partly because I don’t think things are inherently feminist, but can be feminist (which I take to mean challenging the status quo that gives women a raw deal)). Which I guess is what I was trying to gesture towards with the other post: I can only speak for my own experience, but for me at least, poly intervened in the heteronormativity of my previous relationships. I like the politics of that, not to mention the personal benefits!

    Also, for the record, everyone, Li’s representation of the situation in Australia is, in my experience, entirely accurate. It’s not represented as a legitimate relationship structure. I’ve been told I’m being unwise many times, and I am out to only a few trusted friends, partly because my sweetie’s situation would be made incredibly vulnerable if people knew. That said, I’m not sure how I feel about deeming mono/poly to be orientations, but that’s partly because I’m generally critical of how sexualities are thought, and particularly the way that they’re essentialised (if I ‘identify’, it’s as queer). But that will get us into a much larger and more political and theoretical debate!

  66. lauredhel says:

    ” Or the oft-popular “no vaginal sex with anyone but ME” policy.”

    I’d consider this agreement a rather pragmatic and effective way of avoiding the issue of either/any partner in the group being involved in a contraceptive failure and unplanned pregnancy outside of the relationship.

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  68. chava says:

    ” Or the oft-popular “no vaginal sex with anyone but ME” policy.”

    I’d consider this agreement a rather pragmatic and effective way of avoiding the issue of either/any partner in the group being involved in a contraceptive failure and unplanned pregnancy outside of the relationship.

    I’ve seen it done that way. It certainly can be pragmatic as you describe but I have also seen it framed as the “vaginal sex is *real* sex, and you will only have it with me.”

    @ Li–

    Re: the ‘orientation’ issue–I was trying to say that in my experience, some people are “built” to be poly and some aren’t. It seems to be less a matter of preference and more of necessity, if that makes sense?

    So I think that the question of whether poly relationships are feminist is a false one, because it assumes that it’s about how feminist individual poly relationships are for individual women. I think the better questions are over how the social structures of heterosexism, sexism and normative monogamy impact women’s personal relationships (and potential relationships) and the role that polyamory as a political struggle has in addressing those structures.

    That was so well put! I do agree with you there, and I think that your argument above reflects/parallels some of the struggles of feminists interested in BDSM as a preferred lifestyle choice.

    However, while I think that the more abstract theory of poly does have something to offer the fight against heterosexism/sexism/normative monogamy, what I personally have seen “on the ground” is the same thing I often see in the BDSM community–a replication of the problems we are trying to get away from.

    I really don’t know what the solution to that one is, though–I guess we just live our own relationships as responsibly as we can, and educate others to do the same.

    Anyway, I re-wrote this about eight times, which usually means I’m not entirely sure what I’m trying to put my finger on yet. Apologies if it’s still murky!

  69. pinkitude says:

    Great thread. This is the core of an emerging/ongoing convo among friends and family over the past several months. FSB, Li, RJN and others, have made some things clearer for me.

    Frankly, two things make nonmonogamy feel more feminist to me: a) the negotiation of the partners’ respective desires and needs; and b) the separation of those needs and desires from questions of ownership or identity within the relationship.

    Both of thee underlying assumptions are tricky indeed. Let me try to explain:

    First, we assume that negotiations among partners are honest and that both partners are aware of their respective needs and the power positions within the relationship. I can see that nonmonogamy encourages this level of analysis, but it does not *require* it. Call me cynical, but there is a potential for these negotiations to be slanted, fpr partners to use them to play all sorts of emotional games that are just as destructive as assumed or enforced monogamy. It seems to me because monogamous relationships are a cultural norm, conscious negotiation doesn’t seem to be as obvious an option…

    Second, and I think this is what is lurking beneath Marcy’s posts (please let me kknow if I’m compltely off base here), is a deep-seated fear that doing what you need and desire without conscious malice to another is the same thing as being unconscious of the other’s feelings or value. Or perhaps that it is too difficult to know when one has crossed the line. It seems that the better the nonmonogamous relationship, the more they ‘check in’ with one another and confront feelings of jealousy or possessiveness rather than denying or surpressing them. Again, this can’t be said for all nonmonogs – it’s a principle, kind of like marxism (a joke everyone, settle down). And again, I’m not sure that monogamy offers any guarantees except the strictures enforced by the monogamy itself. Haven’t monogs been hurt without being cheated on?

    It may seem like I’m hedging here but I’m not. I’m all about those ideals/principles, honesty, mutual respect, conscious analysis of your actions/interactions and power dynamics, concern and respect for a loved one. What’s clearer to me is that these principles are simply *more thoroughly tested and expressed* in a nonmonogamous relationship because there are no inherent prohibitions preventing the partners from engaging in other, completely adult (yes, sexual, as well as spiritual, intellectual, emotional etc.) connections with other adults. That is, the trust is bound up in the negotiations, and being tested, gets renegotiated all the time. I think it’s possible in monogamous relationships too – but the urgency may be lacking because of the enforced assumption of “loyalty.”

  70. Dw3t-Hthr says:

    chava –

    I think the easiest thing to say about the relationship orientation question is “It depends”. I know polyamorous people who are, effectively, orientationally poly (and in fact consider myself one of them); I know polyamorous people whose relationship preferences are “whatever works in my current situation”, which could be monogamy or some form of nonmonogamy depending on what the situation is.

    (And, of course, there are umpty-leven different ways of having polyamorous preferences, too; an easy example would be comparing someone like me, who wants two serious relationships, with someone who wants to have the option to start a new relationship if they meet someone shiny. Very different desires/expressions, lumped into the same word.)

    I think the comparison to BDSM issues is a sound one in a lot of ways (though, as always, I cringe at the word “lifestyle”); it brings up one of the things that I have consistently run into around this subject: the question of women’s own authority over their lives, including their ability to choose non-normative behaviour. The cultural narratives are so strongly weighted towards presuming women monogamous, lower-sexed, and gatekeepers that there can get to be a huge tangle in the discourse when women buck the trends.

    A while back in a generalised political discussion space, I tried to respond to an argument that nonmonogamy was intrinsically exploitative of women. And basically, when I pointed out that I was the one who insisted on an open relationship (my partner of fifteen years is a take-it-or-leave-it sort like I mentioned above) it went into this ugly, objectifying space full of speculation about what horrible abuses could have damaged me so badly that I had come to the conclusion that I didn’t “deserve monogamy”. I’ve had similar discussions when attempting to talk about BDSM.

    (Of course, at the same time, when I talk about having a low sex drive, not having sex be a motivating factor in beginning relationships, or not being interested in casual sex in some poly spaces I get screamed at for being “sex-negative”. Can’t win anywhere, really.)

  71. mythago says:

    lauredhel@66 – it’s not actually as effective as you’d think at preventing pregnancy. It’s also, as phrased, not effective in preventing pregnancy – “you can’t let another man into your vagina” is not the same as “neither of us will have penis/vagina intercourse with another”.

  72. lauredhel says:

    mythago: “you can’t let another man into your vagina” is not what chava said. It was ““no vaginal sex with anyone but ME” policy”, and that’s what I was responding to.

  73. Regarding PIV sex outside of the primary relationship, I don’t think it’s necessarily a wrong thing to start exploring nonmonogamy in this way. I agree that it sets this up as the only type of real sex, but this is also usually the case in heterosexual couples, so it’s easy to see why it’s done that way. I think the hope would be that once everyone involved is more comfortable with the idea of having other relationships, and more confident about how safe sex will be practiced, then this might change. I know it doesn’t always, but I think that’s when it’s important for people to figure out what their real needs are and be vocal about them.

    This isn’t the case in our relationship, so I can’t speak to how easy or hard it is to actually live with that rule, but just saying that I understand it.

  74. pinkitude, I’m glad to hear that you’ve been able to get something out of these posts — that was the goal! =) I agreed with a lot of what you said, but it made me think about all of these discussions as one big picture, so I want to address some of that.

    I agree with your first point. I don’t think it’s cynical to be skeptical of these things, I think it’s realistic. What I find problematic is when people take that cynicism and assume that the majority of couples will not do the needs balanced check. I’m not saying that’s what you’re saying at all, but that’s just what my thought was when reading your comment. Because the reactions I’ve received, and I know several others have received, assume that this is the default — that our needs will not be met and somebody will be manipulating the situation. This is no better than when monogamous folks are told by some nonmonogamous folks that they’re stupid for choosing monogamy.

    And I think that there is a fear behind the negative reactions we’ve gotten to these posts and through our daily interactions with people. I think the fear is really made up of a lot of smaller concerns that build up into one huge negative reaction. Assumptions that we want to convert everyone or that we do not value monogamy or that we think they’re wrong for choosing monogamy or that we want to take advantage of other people through our nonmonogamy — these are all things I hear/read/see all of the time. I don’t think people react this way out of malice, I think it’s a combination of misconceptions and fear. I can’t express enough how painful it is to have your entire way of life, your goals and ideals, your committed relationship invalidated in one fell swoop.

    Again, want to reiterate that I understand that this is not what you’re saying, it just a concern that I have that was sparked by your comment. Want to make that clear. It was a jumping off point, so this is not a direct response to your comment per se, just an opportunity I saw to explain some things I had going through my head.

  75. chava says:

    @ DWt3–

    Yeah, I hate the word “lifestyle” as well, unfortunantly I haven’t come up with a better one so far. “Lifestyle choice” seems to have a lot of anti-LGBT stigma attached to it, and implies that the “lifestyle” in question is something easily chosen/discarded.

    “Scene” is also icky, at least for me. “Community” might work better than either.

    @ those discussing the PIV outside primary relationship issue: It can be a way of easing into things, I agree. I just haven’t generally seen it done that way. However, as a general disclaimer, I’ve mostly been around the “bad poly kids,” as it were, and it left me with a very bad taste in my mouth re: being told poly is the feminist choice and knowing *this* “poly” was not at all that way.

  76. Élise says:

    I found you article much enlightening. It is the first time that I read something as factual and sensible as this. My partner of two years has been asking me to be in an open relationship and I find it hard to overcome the dirt it digs out of me. For him it is a question of freedom, but what I see is that he needs to seduce to have confidence in himself, moreover he prefers it to be in front of me.

    I get that it’s not a sane process for everyone and that sometimes that openness hides a lot of suffering and fear of abandonnement. If he gets more women, he’ll never be alone again.

    You article shows the problematic from the woman’s point of view, obliterating the idea of performance, instead putting the emphasis on the experience and the liberation, and the self-consciousness you gain from finally getting to know yourself outside of The Couple.

    Many, many thanks, you’ve opened my eyes to a whole new way of seeing things. It’s been torturing me, litteraly, for 2 years straight. I could not get a grip on what it implied for a woman.

  77. Laura says:

    What a great post. On a topical note, just this week I read the Caitlin Flanagan piece on John Edwards, and Amy Benfer’s take on it at “Husband stealing” is peppered throughout. No one, even in feminist circles, seems to challenge the underlying premise that parties to a relationship are each other’s property.

    I’ll say it: Rielle Hunter is not a bad person. She engaged in consensual sex. On her terms. I can see why social conservatives villify her. Obv. But what puzzles me is that she seems to be equally villified in feminist circles. How did Elizabeth Edwards become a feminist darling? Elizabeth Edwards can’t even refer to Rielle Hunter by name. Dehumanizing much? Rielle Hunter is more of a person – more of a self-determined woman – than Elizabeth Edwards will ever be.

    And for the record, I’m 39 years old and going 6 years of marriage. I just happen to hold the belief that my husband is not my property, and vice versa.

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  79. Dw3t-Hthr says:

    The only actual people I know well enough to namecheck who have a no-PIV-with-anyone-but-me rule in their relationship have it only restricting the man, but they’re extremely atypical from what I can see from common discussions.

    Far more often in discussions with people with such a rule in place (apparently often called a “one penis policy” or OPP, kids these days with their fancy lingo) the reasons given for it are that it’s only natural for people to be threatened by similar genitalia, where entirely different genitalia are Giving Her Something I Can’t, and anyway she’s bi and already has a man, so why would she want another one? At best. (At worst it’s blatant harem-building.) It’s evo-psych! Also! If his guyfriends realised he was letting another man bang his woman he’d lose status!

    There are some weird, weird ways societal misogyny crops up in the extended poly community. That’s one of the more common.

    (And yeah, the fact that ‘lifestyle’ is very deliberately chosen for homophobic and otherwise derogatory effect is why I cringe at it. Well, that and the raw pedantry of “The word ‘lifestyle’ means ‘manner of living'; none of these traits actually tell you a thing about my manner of living in the first place.” I can’t hear ‘lifestyle’ directed at non-normative sexuality without hearing the social-conservative subtext of, “the way those people live is filthy, vile, superficial, trivial, and they could just give it up if they wanted to live decently.”)

  80. Damian S. says:

    Marcy — your radical redefinition of the word ‘relationship’ fails to consider the many relationships we all have in life where there is (presumably) no sexual activity whatsoever. Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, children, et al are relationships just as real as consensual partnerships which include sex.

    Also, please consider the number of people in ‘monogamous’ coupling relationships where there is no sex at all, due to illness, injury, asexuality or other factors.

    Surely there must be room in the definition of ‘relationship’ to include all these people, despite the fact that they are neither monogamous or poly.

  81. whatsername says:

    Thanks for talking about this, I’ve come to a lot of the same conclusions as you have over the years.

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