I know that there are more of you out there who want to talk about this, but who in their right mind would, when the result is social ostracization?
Last week, two editorial bastions of progressive, mostly middle-aged-male thinking on either side of the Atlantic—London’s New Statesman and New York’s New Republic—apparently decided it was time to broach a rather delicate subject with their women. In a clever tactical move, the editors deemed it best to let a lady do the talking, and within 48 hours of each other had published Liverpudlian comedian Rosie Wilby’s “You’re More Polyamorous Than You Think” …
… Whereupon I imagine they immediately emailed the article to their wives, coupled with that classic middle-age plea for more sexual and/or emotional variety in their relationships. You know the spiel I’m talking about. You may have even heard it from your own partner if you’ve been together for any amount of time.
OK, here is your trigger warning: Nobody likes a poly evangelist, so if you’re one of the many people who believe they are hard-wired monogamous, or the thought of your partner sharing emotional or sexual intimacy with another person makes you want to fling yourself from the closest tall building: Stop reading. Easy as that.
For the rest of you out there who wonder along with me if serial monogamy and a 40-50% divorce rate is really the best we can do, I’d like to tentatively propose we step up the Polyamory Conversation. You know, the same one that may have driven the New Statesman/New Republic editors’ wives to tears last week.
Now, I know I’m not the first feminist to assert that the institution of monogamy is a patriarchal one that contributes to women’s oppression. But to try to get your average woman-on-the-street to have a serious, considered conversation on the subject is, in my experience, to subject yourself to a public flogging.
I won’t start by going into details on why I believe the social ideal of monogamy has become a self-limiting belief for many people, since Rosie Wilby did a great job of that with her New Statesman piece. Mostly, I’m just issuing a cry for help here: Being polyamorous for the past two years has been a terrifying growth experience for me, and I want need to talk to other women about it.
However, almost every time I try, I get pounded over the head with judgments, insults, and harrassment. It seems either that my polyamory experiment has morphed me categorically into a person worthy of mainstream condemnation, or the whole issue inflames emotions so much that it’s acceptable to bully or tarnish the character of those who publicly espouse anything besides the Orthodox Monogamous Creed.
A few examples: A Facebook acquaintance recently suggested, with the intention of consoling me after a breakup, that we polyamorous people are all “damaged goods” who due to poor upbringing are incapable of conforming to social rules, and that once we have “healed” we’ll naturally become monogamous. Another Facebook commenter on an Atlantic article profiling poly families frighteningly wrote, Elliot Rodger–style, that he “demand[s] monogamy” and threatened that if monogamy breaks down “horrible, horrible occurances [sic] will occur.”
In fact, I guarantee that every article on the poly experience you can find in a mainstream publication will be trailed by dozens—sometimes thousands—of comments saturated with poly-shaming and vitriol. My own mother recently worried that my being poly indicates I might have a sex addiction (this despite the fact that as a single poly person, actual sex is quite rare for me these days).
Now, I am aware that in publicly objecting to such an important, ingrained social institution as monogamy I should expect a bit of hounding. But the extreme level of social harrassment that now surrounds this issue has major effects: Poly people are afraid to openly discuss their challenges and experiences, and are left silenced and closeted.
We sense that there are more of you out there who want to talk about this, but who in their right mind would, when the result is social ostracization?
For me, conscientious objection to monogamy is a feminist issue: I worry that we women, perhaps lacking as a group either the creativity or risk appetite to tinker with our relationship structures, are thwarting our own empowerment.
I believe as long as women keep depending on monogamy to police sexuality in order to protect our child-care arrangements (which are usually structured around the stability of our monogamous relationships), we can’t significantly improve equity across genders and socioeconomic classes. Nor can we break down sexual double standards, or access the tremendous power that lies in connecting with our own sexual desire. I believe the enormous amount of energy we women invest in monogamous romantic policing could be used to far greater advantage by lobbying for policies that more equitably distribute the public burden of child care.
But I can rarely get anywhere close to that far in any discussion before someone interrupts with an accusation of sex addiction or any other number of slurs.
I am, at this point, really at a loss.
I guess all I can do is echo the imaginary plea of the New Republic and New Statesman editors to their wives after Rosie Wilby’s public broaching of the Polyamory Conversation last week:
Please, ladies. Can we just talk about this?
Samantha Eyler is a freelance American writer, editor, and translator based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.