Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Outlining The Radical Potential of Polyamory

With the last of my classes finally wrapping up I've been looking forward to blogging with renewed vigor. My problem lately has been less about not having anything to write and more about having too many subjects I want to tackle at once. I've decided it would be best to start really digging into intersectionality and tie together some of the concepts I've started explaining with my blog. After Pagan Spirit Gathering in mid-June I'll almost certainly be on a Pagan writing kick so in the mean time I'm going to tackle a few Polyamory concepts.

I want to begin by taking a look at what I consider to be the potential for Polyamory as a practice and as a movement. I've already explained what Polyamory is but now I want to look more at the possibilities Polyamory represents. Others have put forward some lessons for the building of a polyamorous movement but before we get to that we need to ask ourselves a fundamental question: what is the value of Polyamory?

I've tried to make it clear on my blog that I'm not an assimilationist. I reject the idea that mainstream society should be the ultimate arbitrator of what is and is not acceptable, and so I'm not interested in providing bullet points for how polyamorous people can serve the greater good of society as it's defined by that mainstream. Instead I'd like to point out the new things Polyamory can do on its own and with other activist movements in order to create a new, better society.

The obvious improvement would be just allowing everyone the ability to love multiple people without being pressured into choosing just one and facing the emotional backlash of that constraint. Many of us first discover Polyamory for the very obvious reason that we want multiple partners and this is the system which encompasses the fulfillment of that need. Poly people having full access to the relationship structures they want is a worthy goal all on its own. This is a valuable goal and a major polyamorous movement could push for this access.

That's a definite start, and right now this is about as far as the Polyamory movement, if such a thing exists, has gotten in its world-building. However, it's not very radical. Ideas of Poly marriage and the like mirror pushes for same-sex marriage and involve the same limitations. If we honestly want to create a space for Polyamory in the world we need to do it so that it can serve people other than straight, white, cisgender men with money. Otherwise the face of Polyamory will look more like Hugh Hefner than any major Poly blogger or activist alive today. Women who are already discriminated against for any expression of sexuality that isn't controlled by men would still be pushed away from having multiple partners, while men with power and means would be able to legitimize the casual adultery they currently commit whether or not their partners accepted it emotionally. People of color who already lack equal state recognition and protection in marriage would be disproportionately discriminated against in applications for legal and social support on the basis of having multiple partners, as compared to white people. Queer relationships, which have long had a component of openness or even Polyamory to them, have already faced this pushback by society and been called on to adopt straight-acting picket fence relationships, even as society continues to legitimize rich, straight, serial monogamist celebrities. Essentially: the legitimization of Polyamory would not reshape the existing system, it would merely etch new grooves into the existing system for new kinds of oppression and discrimination to flow through. This may work just fine for people that fit into a lot of categories in power, but let's keep in mind that even if you are a straight, white, cisgender man that just wants to date multiple cisgender women, a society that makes room for a triad of poor, black, Trans women won't keep you out, but a society that doesn't make that room will always be acting in ways which limit you, and every human being.

So how can we do better? Let's take a quick look at the negative systems that Monogamy reinforces and then I will explain how a radical approach to Polyamory can help to dismantle them.

Non-monogamous relationship structures exist in numerous non-Western societies, not necessarily in a style that we would want to mimic or would approve of, but that's relative and besides the point. We can look at them and see them existing. Look at 'em go! Insisting that different ethnic groups are more or less predisposed to non-monogamy gets very racist very fast, which is why people that do that came up with a scientific sounding phrase called "Evolutionary Psychology" to put that racism into objective-sounding scientific terms. Evolutionary psychology is one of the more prominent and problematic pseudosciences that exists, so I won't try to pretend to know that we're predisposed to Polyamory or Monogamy, instead I'll just say that Monogamy and Polyamory (usually expressed as Polygamy and rarely as Polyandry when it's culturally codified) are clearly culturally empowered regardless of what people would normally flock to. What this cultural discrepancy really means is that elements of western culture as a whole are constructed to keep people monogamous. This is called compulsory Monogamy and it does a lot of damage, but it's easy to see why it exists.

Money doesn't like to trickle down, but it does like to move in straight lines. Monogamy, if you're actually doing it, is a surefire way to make sure your money, time, and property all transfer to a direct descendent. Western society as we know it today was tempered in a feudal era whose power structure depended on "divinely empowered" royalty, and the only way to know for sure who Jesus was a fan of was that they were directly descended from a king. We now know that most of these kings were having sex with everything that moved, but they weren't allowed to act like it, and obviously if they couldn't get away with it those without money and power had to be pushed into the same system. Land stayed in family hands, money stayed in family hands, bastard children were incredibly bad for business. While we've seen a rise in adoption, partnerships developed out of love, divorce, and same-sex partnerships nothing has fundamentally changed in the past five hundred years in regards to the ways money and property move. Occasionally a lawyer ends up with it, or a family pet, but for the most part we're operating within the same framework as always. Money moves in straight lines, and rarely disperses outward to benefit communities. This is a big reason to keep Monogamy front and center in the Western psyche: if a dozen people hold money and property collectively instead of two (with the societal assumption being that the husband will control it solely)
it starts to look an awful lot like Socialism.

Besides strictly monetary reasons Monogamy serves as a powerful force for shame. Slut-shaming is completely decontextualized by an egalitarian polyamorous society. A woman can't be put down for having multiple sexual and/or romantic partners if that society empowers women to freely do so. It's the difference between calling a woman a Lesbian for wearing pants in the 1940's and doing so now. Restrictions on what our society allows a woman to do are the foundation for most gender-based oppression, with more violent acts being used to reinforce those societal norms. With our society being geared towards compulsory Monogamy, women are expected to find one person (ideally man) and settle down without straying or expressing her sexuality outside of that single person. As mentioned above powerful men have always flaunted this rule without the same level of societal repercussions. For instance, while many people felt it was grounds for impeachment, society as a whole never got as outright angry at Bill Clinton for cheating on Hillary as they did at Kristen Stewart (oh yeah, even I managed to hear about this and I deliberately try to avoid celebrity gossip) for not sticking with her much older co-actor (for that matter, how angry was everybody at the married man she was having sex with? That guy got all of zero flack for  it). Monogamy also serves as a shaming agent for people of color and Queer people. Regardless of the standards, histories, and traditions in those communities regarding multiple partners the straight, white standard is the basis for judgement, and subsequent punishment.

When you look at an idea intersectionally it stops seeming so neutral and innocuous, doesn't it? The further you get outside of privileged identities the more the everyday operations of society turn into oppression, and Monogamy is no different. To put a counter to this, let's look at some ways Polyamory can form a useful addition to the various forms of activism already attempting to counter these oppressions.Keep in mind these aren't quick-fix solutions, just outlines of ways in which Polyamory may contribute to larger struggles than itself.

Feminism - Right off the bat the obvious way Polyamory can benefit feminism is that it evens the playing field in regards to sexuality. Even with the rise of radical forms of feminism which attempt to break away from patriarchal expectations instead of just trying to make room within patriarchal systems, women face pressure to conform to normative relationship structures. While men are able to get away with serial Monogamy single mothers, regardless of circumstances, are painted as bogeymen by politicians. Cheating men and women are given completely different cultural allowances for their behavior and their partners are given vastly different ranges of acceptable responses. By creating a society in which women, and other genders, have equal access to multiple partnership systems of patriarchy lose much of their ability to police women through their sexuality.

Queer Liberation - From the first moment a group of Gay men met in a bathhouse Queer identities have been shaped by non-monogamy. Modern attempts to whitewash this history to make it palatable to straight media and politicians are simply covering up a core aspect of what free sexuality represents. While Gay rights movements may not be advanced particularly far by putting Polyamory back into the culture, Queer Liberation benefits immensely from access to a system that allows for vastly different ranges of romantic and sexual expression that are as queer as the participants themselves. Polyamory is about re-opening the bathhouses, cruising in the park, and hooking up at the bar without sacrificing a sense of stability and loving wholeness when straight society insists you pick one or the other. It's an all Trans commune love-in, a Bisexual relationship that doesn't require you to be a unicorn, or any relationship that doesn't make you feel like you're doing something Dan Savage would talk about himself doing behind his partners back. While Queer Liberation is not about earning societal legitimacy so much as taking the space we deserve, by putting Polyamory prominently into that space we have the opportunity to create worlds of desire and choice that are vastly more intricate than the one-size-fits all offering of Monogamy. To put it simply: radical Polyamory IS radically Queer.

Anti-Capitalism - I haven't sat down and written up a "What is it?" article for Socialism, or Anti-Capitalism more generally, yet (which I guess I need to fix soon) so if my blog is the first time you're encountering these ideas this post might not be the perfect intro. For everyone more versed in the subject, Polyamory represents a style of communal living within a single chosen family. By seeing past the ideas inherent in Monogamy about the separation of people and relationships into tiny cookie-cutter segments, wide-ranging polyamorous families not only share resources with each other but help deconstruct the segmented nature of communities. If your extended family expands through some lover-of-a-lover-of-a-lover into incredibly wide expanses you're pushed to see people as being much closer to yourself and create deeper more meaningful communities even with people you aren't in a relationship with.Polyamory is a basis for creating a new consciousness focused on sharing of love, support, and resources in wide ranging ways which carve huge cracks into the foundation of Capitalism. Additionally, by expending definitions of recognized relationships beyond those which capitalist systems are able to readily shape to their advantage, Polyamory can help to derail oppressive financial systems which require money to flow in easily trackable ways instead of outward into a community.

These are just a few of the major ways radical Polyamory can support other styles of activism. More people living in a house together, or living off the grid together, could benefit environmental activism. While Polyamory does not correlate exactly to relationship styles predating western colonialism, by expanding the range of relationship choices outward from Monogamy we also disempower Monogamy's colonizing, Christianity-reinforced influence. If we're willing to open our minds to moving beyond our personal romantic interests and see how they reflect upon society, we as polyamorists can not only offer infinite love, but also infinite change.

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