Why monogamy isn’t the problem

In a Facebook thread discussing this rather excellent post on polyamory and the objectification of women within activist circles, a friend of mine (who is a bit of a polyamory evangelist) said:

Nobody says that polyamory is a cure-all for sexism. It’s a cure for monogamy, which is inherently propertarian and unquestionably allied to patriarchy”1

1. Also “If monogamy is patriarchal, then by contraposition, feminism is polyamorous”, apparently. I’m not entirely sure how monogamous lesbian relationships contribute to patriarchy, but I’m sure there’s a suitable analysis out there somewhere… Probably something about using the master’s tools.

This kind of sentiment is pretty common in radical circles, to the point that people are told they’re bad anarchists/feminists for choosing to be in monogamous relationships.

I don’t agree with this. I don’t think monogamy is inherently propertarian or that polyamory is inherently the opposite (the opposite of owning one house is not owning many houses, it’s changing the way people relate to houses).

I’ll illustrate using examples:

  1. Alice and Bob are starting a relationship. They sit down and talk and both decide that while neither has the right to control the other’s actions, they are both more comfortable in a monogamous relationship. They agree to be monogamous, but leave open the possibility of future renegotiation of their relationship. Alice meets Carol, and finds herself attracted to her. Alice tells Carol that she is in a monogamous relationship and that nothing can happen between them until she has spoken to Bob. Alice goes back to Bob and explains the situation. They talk. One of several things happens:
    1. Bob is comfortable with the situation and a polyamorous relationship is formed,
    2. Bob is uncomfortable with the situation, they decide to split up so Alice can pursue her relationship with Carol,
    3. Bob is uncomfortable with the situation, they decide to stay together and Alice doesn’t pursue the relationship with Carol.
  2. Alice and Bob are starting a relationship. They assume that the relationship is monogamous because “that’s what people do”. Both are constantly jealous when they see each other with friends of the opposite sex. Bob meets Carol, and finds himself attracted to her. He doesn’t consider the possibility of renegotiation because talking about that kind of thing is weird. He cheats on Alice and doesn’t tell her, Alice still can’t pursue other romantic interests because “she’s his girl”.
  3. Alice and Bob are starting a relationship. They decide to be monogamous. Bob meets Carl, and finds himself attracted to him. He tells Alice he wants to have a polyamorous relationship involving Carl. Alice doesn’t like the idea, because she doesn’t want to put her emotional/sexual/whatever needs on hold while Bob is spending time with Carl. Bob pressures Alice into agreeing by telling her she’s being a bad feminist and is trying to oppress him.
  4. Alice and Bob are starting a relationship. They decide to have an open relationship. Bob is much more confident and socially outgoing than Alice. Whenever Alice tries to assert herself Bob pretty much disappears from her life to have casual sex with random people until Alice drops the issue. Alice realises she would much rather be in a monogamous relationship, but every time she raises the issue, Bob reminds her that she agreed (enthusiastically even) to be in a open relationship, and that he can always find someone else who “won’t try to monopolise his love”.

All of the examples in 1 are non-propertarian, and are based in explicit negotiation, consent and mutual respect. It begins as consensual monogamy, in 1a it evolves into consensual polyamory, in 1b and 1c it continues as consensual monogamy. It could also obviously have started out and continued as consensual polyamory, that’s cool too, but I didn’t want too many examples.

Example 2 is oppressive monogamy, of a depressingly standard kind, and 3 and 4 are polyamory in which Bob exploits a power imbalance to get what he wants.2

2. I’m sure someone will probably argue that this is not polyamory, or something similar, but then we’re into a situation where polyamory is good by definition, which seems pretty useless to me.

All of these things happen, or at least could happen, and I think it demonstrates that being non-hierarchical in relationships has a lot more to do with how people behave in relationships and how people make decisions about what relationships they have than it does with how many people are involved.

Monogamy isn’t the problem. Compulsory monogamy (as in example 2) is a problem, certainly, as is any kind of compulsory sexuality, and the possibility of  polyamory is certainly important, but simply practising polyamory does little to combat propertarian male attitudes towards women. Actually challenging propertarian male attitudes towards women is how you do that.

20 comments
  1. Sober said:

    I’m the author of the statement quoted above. I don’t strongly disagree with any of this, but we’re obviously using different definitions (and not trivially: my definition of polyamory isn’t your definion but with added inherent goodness).

    > The opposite of owning one house is not owning many houses, it’s changing the way people relate to houses.

    This is obviously true, but it’s a bad analogy, because if polyamory was simply about replacing “mono” with “poly” then it would be called polygamy. In the post from which you’re quoting, I defined polyamory as “an openness to the possibility of loving more than one person”[1]. Perhaps this is too weak a definition, but I think it’s the right idea. Polyamory isn’t about having more than one partner, it’s about relating to each other in such a way that the possibility of having more than one partner is understood, accepted and not fatal to any existing relationship(s).

    As for monogamy, I still say that it is inherently proprietarian[2]. What characterises a monogamous relationship is that upon its initiation, each participant gives the other exclusive access to their “love”[3]. And I think this exclusitivity of access is also what characterises the concept of property, as distinct from possession: people “own” possessions in sense that they use them, but they “own” property in the sense that they prevent other people from using it. In polyamory, a relationship between people exists when those people love each other. In monogamy, a relationship exists between people when those people are not allowed to love anybody but each other.

    Practically, this sort of arrangement causes all sorts of problems[4], and philosophically I think it’s a ridiculous idea, but I suppose that it is possible, in a strictly feminist framework, to argue that if such an agreement is arrived at consensually, then there’s no problem with it. But I suppose I’m also coming at this from an individualist anarchist point of view. Having said that, I don’t really care if some people have consensual monogamous relationships and are happy enough with them. Like, I’d have my doubts, but if they say they’re happy with it I’ll take their word for it. I don’t think they’re bad anarchists/feminists, but they’re obviously different anarchists/feminists to me. That doesn’t trouble me too much.

    > Monogamy isn’t the problem. Compulsory monogamy (as in example 2) is a problem, certainly, as is any kind of compulsory sexuality, and the possibility of polyamory is certainly important, but simply practising polyamory does little to combat propertarian male attitudes towards women. Actually challenging propertarian male attitudes towards women is how you do that.

    I don’t disagree with this and it’s a good conclusion. But I don’t think it contradicts anything I’ve said[6]. What I did say in the comment you quoted above though was that “[monogamy is] unquestionably allied to patriarchy”, and perhaps that assertion is harder to substantiate than I had initially figured. Maybe one could say that monogamy is questionably allied to patriarchy (depending on what one means by “monogamy” and “allied to”), but that’s weak enough that it would (at least partially) invalidate some of the things I went on to say later in that comment from which you are quoting. I still think there were good ideas in that comment that are salvagable, but I’ll have to rethink it a bit.

    One minor nitpick:

    > Also “If monogamy is patriarchal, then by contraposition, feminism is polyamorous”, apparently. I’m not entirely sure how monogamous lesbian relationships contribute to patriarchy, but I’m sure there’s a suitable analysis out there somewhere… Probably something about using the master’s tools.

    Your example of (presumably non-patriarchal) monogamous lesbian relationships doesn’t contradict the proposition you quoted above. I’m stating that a relationship exists between the propositions “monogamy is patriarchal” and “feminism is polyamorous” and that that relation is implication (although using the same logic, the relationship of equivalence can also be derived). This is true independently of the actual truth-value of those propositions. This is important, because in the comment from which you quoted that, I was distinguishing the above logic (regardless of the truth values of the propositions contained therein) from the logic to which I felt it was being compared in somebody else’s comment. As for whether or not monogamous lesbian relationships contribute to patriarchy, you’re right that it’s probably possible to argue that they do, but I don’t have a strong opinion on that so I’m not going to attempt to do so.

    [1]: So I would say that Example 1 above is a sort of metapolyamory: openness to openness to the possibility of loving more than one person.

    [2]: You could probably extend my logic to say that all forms polyamory other than relationship anarchy are also proprietarian, and I guess so, but I feel less strongly about this.

    [3]: What this actually means is another issue: it doesn’t just mean sex, because presumably there are monogamous asexual relationships, but the line between romantic relationships and close friendships can get really blurry, and I’m not sure that it’s even useful or meaningful to postulate the existence of such a line.

    [4]: People don’t spend all of their time with one person. They have lots of relationships with lots of people that are changing all the time. As a monogamous relationship progresses, the probability that one or both of the participants thereof will find themselves wanting to initiate a relationship with a person other than their partner approaches one. This is something that nearly always happens, so how do you deal with it? In monogamy, the only option is to decide which person one loves the most and then choose them as the person with whom to have one’s relationship. But love is not a finite, quantifiable scalar, so such a choice is necessarily arbitrary and thus causes a lot of unnecessary pain. I don’t see the possibility of a monogamous relationship that is both honest and emotionally sustainable.

    [5]: I also think, and this will no doubt be controversial, that there are some parallels between the ideas of “consensual monogamy” and “voluntary wage labour”. The argument against the idea of “voluntary wage labour” is that somebody who is dependent on the food and shelter (which are basic human needs) for which their wages are exchanged cannot realistically choose not to sell their labour. But isn’t love also a basic human need? I know it’s not quite the same thing, and there is certainly no obligation on anybody to provide “love” for anybody else, but it’s complicated, and you can certainly imagine somebody desiring “love” with somebody else to such an extent that they would agree to restrictions to which they wouldn’t otherwise agree in order to get (or keep) it, especially if they already had an established relationship with that other person. But maybe this can never be totally avoided.

    [6]: The proprietarianism inherent in monogamy is distinct from the women-are-the-property-of-men proprietarianism that’s classically expressed in the institution of marriage.

    • noforbiddenquestions said:

      each participant gives the other exclusive access to their “love”

      How is this unique? In a healthy poly situation there is discussion about romantic/sexual interactions with new individuals. Is that not saying, “I grant you (temporarily exclusive) access to my love, until such time as we renegotiate”? Sounds pretty “propertarian” to me.

      If the problem is simply exclusivity, does that imply a moral obligation to be in romantic/sexual relationships with an infinite (or at least arbitrarily large) number of people at all times? After all, otherwise you are giving exclusive access to your love to two, or three, or ten people – and how dare you deny it to the rest of the human race?!

      Look, any time you interact with someone you give them your time and energy. If I help a friend with his math homework I am promising my undivided attention in that conversation. You can conceptualize that in a “propertarian” way if you want, and maybe it is, but I really don’t see what’s wrong with that.

      • noforbiddenquestions said:

        Oops, “proprietarian”.

      • ” In a healthy poly situation there is discussion about romantic/sexual interactions with new individuals. Is that not saying, “I grant you (temporarily exclusive) access to my love, until such time as we renegotiate”?”

        No. At least, not always.

        “Discusasion” does not necessarily imply “control.” Not all poly relationships operate from a model where Alice needs Bob’s “permission” in order to have a new lover. Alicew may discuss her intentions with Charles, Alice may invite Bob’s opinion, but Alice doesn’t necessarily need permission from Bob; Bob and Alice may not have a model which says that either one of them has control over the other’s decisions.

        If a person comes from a monogamous background, where the implicit understanding is that Alice is forbidden to be with anyone else as long as she’s with Bob, then it might be difficult to understand how it could be that Alice and Bob might be in a committed relationship with each other, yet each does not need the other’s permission to take on new lovers. Yet many poly relationships do in fact work that way.

      • noforbiddenquestions said:

        Franklin, this seems like a semantic distinction to me. I might tell my labmate, “I’m going to play some Britney Spears while I work,” and I don’t need her permission as such to do so. But she’s free to leave the room, stop being my friend outside of lab, or even to switch research groups if working near me while I play Britney Spears songs is that unbearable for her. I recognize that when we work in the same room, our sounds affect other people’s ability to work and the amount of pleasure they experience while doing so, so I try to include other people’s thoughts and feelings in my decisions about what kind and amount of noise to make. Does this mean that my labmates exert a “proprietarian” or “patriarchal” authority over the sound waves in our lab? No. It means we respect each other and try to accommodate each other’s needs and desires.

        Does Alice need Bob’s “permission” in this example? I wouldn’t call it permission. But given that, like my labmate who might loathe Britney Spears, Bob is free to end his relationship with Alice when she informs him of her intentions, it seems like the two of them are in a situation where their lives and choices affect each other and the morally upstanding thing to do is to run things by each other. Perhaps their understanding from the beginning was that they would be hooking up with other people at any time and did not expect the other person to say anything about it. But in that case, I think there should have been a discussion at “the beginning” establishing that, too. (Is the need to have that discussion “proprietarian”? I think there should be a discussion in any relationship establishing what each person needs/wants/expects from it. Do you disagree?)

        I also think I still need a clear response to the issue of finite numbers of simultaneous lovers. Why is there a problem when granting your love to one person exclusively, but not a problem when you grant your love to four people exclusively (because you’ve decided you’re not interested in relationships with additional people)?

      • “Franklin, this seems like a semantic distinction to me.”

        Not at all. You originally wrote, “In a healthy poly situation there is discussion about romantic/sexual interactions with new individuals. Is that not saying, “I grant you (temporarily exclusive) access to my love, until such time as we renegotiate”?” And the answer to that question is “no.” Discussion about romantic attraction or sex does not necessarily imply exclusive access to one’s love, temporarily or otherwise.

        The part of the discussion that’s at issue here is demonstrated by your following statement: “After all, otherwise you are giving exclusive access to your love to two, or three, or ten people – and how dare you deny it to the rest of the human race?!” There is a rather significant difference between Alice not being involved with Jake because Alice doesn’t want to be involved with Jake, and Alice not being involved with Jake because Bob tells her not to be. I don’t see that as a semantic difference at all.

        If Bob has the ability to express his opinions about Alice’s decisions, but ultimately the decisions are made by Alice, that’s rather a different thing than if Bob believes he has the right or the authority to tell Alice what to do. In the first case, the locus of control is with Alice; in the second, it’s with Bob.

        The notion that one person has the right or authority to dictate another person’s actions is what’s propertarian. This idea is not necessarily linked to monogamy, though often there’s an implicit social idea that it is. There are monogamous relationships in which one partner does not believe she has the authority to make her partner’s choices; and there are polyamorous relationships in which one person does believe that he has the authority to make another person’s decisions. You can not tell just from looking at the relationship configuration whether or not it’s based on notions of control and property, which is what this essay is all about.

        But it’s a mistake to assume that if person A has any input whatsoever in person B, or that if person A has any number of partners less than infinity, that must necessarily mean it’s exactly the same as any other propertarian relationship. That’s absolutely not the case.

      • noforbiddenquestions said:

        I’m sorry that I phrased my initial question the way I did. I see what you are saying about it. But I think you are mischaracterizing my assumptions, because what I am trying to get at is that if at Time X, I am in a relationship only with one person, and at Time Y I am beginning a relationship with a second person, I was “exclusive” before time Y (even if the option to be in more than one relationship was available to me). Literally, factually, between times X and Y I was in a relationship with that first person only, which is what I understood the word “exclusive” to mean. (“My lunch is exclusively carrots” is a descriptive statement, not an implication that I made a binding promise to the carrots never to eat anything else.) Clearly it can also refer to excluding the option of additional relationships in the future, which is what I gather you mean by it (being “in an exclusive relationship” implies this, I suppose) and why I think we disagree on semantics.

        Out of curiosity, where would you classify a situation in which Alice wants to be involved with Jake, but not more than she wants Bob to be happy, and she knows that Bob will be less happy if she is involved with Jake than if she is not? Is Alice morally permitted to weigh these considerations, or is she buying into the patriarchy by considering Bob’s preferences?

      • “But I think you are mischaracterizing my assumptions, because what I am trying to get at is that if at Time X, I am in a relationship only with one person, and at Time Y I am beginning a relationship with a second person, I was “exclusive” before time Y (even if the option to be in more than one relationship was available to me). Literally, factually, between times X and Y I was in a relationship with that first person only, which is what I understood the word “exclusive” to mean.”

        Ah, gotcha. That wasn’t clear to me on reading your first comment, but I think I have a better understanding now of what you’re saying.

        The word “exclusive” is a bit slippery, because it can be used descriptively or prescriptively. In the case you’re describing, a period of time when you happen to be with only one person, it’s a descriptive word; you’re exclusive because you happen to have only one partner at the moment.

        Many people–more commonly monogamous than polyamorous folks, I suspect–use the word “exclusive” prescriptively; when a person says “We’re exclusive” when talking of a romantic partner, I think most folks take that to mean “we have an arrangement in which neither of us is permitted to have any other partners.”

        This actually gets right back to the point that the original article makes: monogamy (or exclusivity, if you prefer) is not necessarily an indicator of a property-based approach to relationship, and polyamory is not necessarily egalitarian. If Alice and Bob are each only seeing the other at the moment, but there’s not an explicit prohibition against them seeing others, then they could be described as “monogamous” or “exclusive,” but it’s not because they consider one another to be property, and it certainly doesn’t imply that they intend to remain that way.

        “Out of curiosity, where would you classify a situation in which Alice wants to be involved with Jake, but not more than she wants Bob to be happy, and she knows that Bob will be less happy if she is involved with Jake than if she is not?”

        I would classify that as Alice and Bob being reasonable, grown, mature adults with good communication and relationship skills. :)

        “Is Alice morally permitted to weigh these considerations, or is she buying into the patriarchy by considering Bob’s preferences?”

        I would say that if Alice wants to maintain healthy relationships, then not only is she morally permitted to weigh Bob;s opinion, she’s morally obligated to.

        The difference between that and a more propertarian approach is in the locus of control. In a healthy relationship, Bob expresses his opinion, and then Alice makes the decision based on the factors that are important to her, including Bob’s happiness. In a propertarian or ownership-based model, Bob makes the decision for Alice.

        They might have the same outcome, but the difference in mindset is pretty profound, I’ve found.

  2. Moving the definitions around has some problems. I think I understand your intent, and I give you credit for trying to keep polyamory awesome, but the practical reality is that plenty of people practice something that they call “polyamory” and that falls into the nasty dynamics outlined in (3) and (4). We can claim that “they’re not actually doing polyamory” all we want, but I read that primarily as an attempt to avoid contending with the actual screwed up shit that goes down in these situations. Personally, my goal is to deal with that and to help people deal with what is actually going on, much more than to discuss theory about why “proper” polyamory is always sunshine and sparkleponies.

    Relatedly, a while back I wrote a post called “In Praise of Monogamy” that got a bunch of attention and was ultimately reposted in The Guardian:
    http://clarissethorn.com/blog/2011/06/09/in-praise-of-monogamy/

    • Uh, this was intended to be in response to the comment above, not the OP. Sorry about that!

  3. mhairi said:

    Excellent post.

    I actually agree with both of you above, I think you are just framing it in different ways.

    Scenario 2 of compulsory monogamy (even when the participants arent actually monogamous) is the most common scenario; Scenario 3 and 4 exist.

    In Scenario 1 tho, there is no mono or poly – there is mono for now, maybe stay mono, maybe poly later, maybe single, depending on how the relationship progresses. In Scenarios 2, 3 and 4, although 3&4 are poly there is still implied “ownership”, on the assumption that it isn’t something up for negotiation, it is something to be imposed according to external norms. So Scenario 1 is “potential poly” based on negotiation, where as in the other scenarios the relationship structure is imposed through either social or individual power.

  4. I’m just gonna deal with this for now, cos I think it relates to a lot of the issues.

    “What characterises a monogamous relationship is that upon its initiation, each participant gives the other exclusive access to their “love”[3]. And I think this exclusitivity of access is also what characterises the concept of property, as distinct from possession: people “own” possessions in sense that they use them, but they “own” property in the sense that they prevent other people from using it.”

    I agree somewhat with this definition. I think monogamy is defined by exclusivity. But there’s exclusivity based on consent and negotiation and exclusivity based on normativity and entitlement, and the two are distinct. And I guess most monogamous relationships are varying degrees of both, but the point of this post was to show that similar dynamics can exist in poly situations too.

    Is monogamy propertarian? It can be, depending on how it’s arrived at and maintained. The difference between love and a commodity is that it’s not created by labour, and people are not entitled to it. It’s not a thing, it’s a relation between people. Private property is an entitlement granted to the capitalists by themselves and enforced by the state; there is absolutely policing involved in enforcing monogamy in some cases, albeit of a different kind, but that isn’t inherently the case – it can be voluntary, just as polyamory can be.

  5. Also like, irl, people in monogamous relationships don’t “horde” their love. You can love your friends and family and humanity generally (except for capitalists, fascists and cops) and still have only one partner.

  6. Monogamy is not inherently patriarchal. Polyamory is not inherently egalitarian. This seems obvious to me, and I’m a person who’s been polyamorous for quite literally my entire adult life.

    I categorically reject the idea that “monogamy = patriarchy, polyamory = feminism,” both for the reasons outlined here and for several others besides. There are several forms of poly relationship structures that are inherently patriarchal, arrangements built around a “one-penis policy” (a man has several female partners, each of whom is permitted to have sex with other women but forbidden to have sex with other men) being the most obvious example. Point being, the number of people involved in a relationship dynamic does not *necessarily* tell you anything about the power dynamic or gender assumptions in the relationship.

  7. I really appreciate this post. I have been thinking a lot about polyamory/monogamy and how it relates to me in my own life and my relations (with mostly cis men). I don’t think I could ever be in a polyamorous relationship because it takes a lot for me to trust just one person, never mind more than that. Especially as a gang rape survivor.

    I think it’s about respecting people’s decisions to be in monogamous and/or polyamorous relationship. I see a lot of judgements being thrown at people who choose to be monogamous, as if they are contributing to white supremacist capitalist patriarchal values (which I think is absolutely fucking absurd). You’ve highlighted ways in which poly relationships can also be patriarchal and that is something that should be a part of this discussion and am SO so glad that it is.

    With that said, I hope this will kickstart a dialogue about the oppressive dynamics monogamous and/or poly relationships can sometimes have.

  8. Desmond said:

    Wow that was odd. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I clicked submit
    my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Regardless, just wanted to say great blog!

  9. LG said:

    I absolutely agree with this post. Lately I find myself having to justify why I am a lesbian who believes in monogamy. I am a feminist as well and I can perfectly see the difference between a free-chosen act of commitment and oppresion.

    Congrats on your post!

  10. Thank you for sharing this. As someone who was recently in a poly-amorous situation, in that, i was in an equal 3person/3way relationship that was also “open”, I am dealing with how that worked and didtnt in many ways. While we lived and displayed public affection as a 3-person unit, and arguably challenged notions of queer romantic and sexual identity with our circumstance, there was also a lot of verbal/textual/emotional/substance abuse involved, that, for me, was triggering and resembled issues that ANY intimate relationship could foster. Just because we may have produced affection/imagery that challenged conventional narratives of romantic relating, doesn’t mean that there were not a TON of misogynistic undertones and possession at play. In fact, prior to my entrance into the relationship as full-on partner, not tertiary “other”, the two people outside of myself had actually been engaging in what the article sites as example 4. I could not agree more: it is not the label that inherently challenges these notions of patriarchal performances of gender/romance/emotion/sexuality within an intimate (for that matter, any) relationship, it is the way in which we navigate ourselves and the way in which we can relate to others that we can begin to unpack, dismantle, and actively, compassionately, challenge these westernized, normative-narratives of loving self/inter-expression.

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