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:
- 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:
- Bob is comfortable with the situation and a polyamorous relationship is formed,
- Bob is uncomfortable with the situation, they decide to split up so Alice can pursue her relationship with Carol,
- Bob is uncomfortable with the situation, they decide to stay together and Alice doesn’t pursue the relationship with Carol.
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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.