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Is Non-Monogamy A Feminist Relationship Choice?

Illustration for article titled Is Non-Monogamy A Feminist Relationship Choice?

Frau Sally Benz, blogging at Feministe, has a fascinating series of articles about her experience with non-monogamous* relationships. She relates this to feminism using an interesting catch: letting go of the ingrained idea that we "possess" our partners.


Benz's positioning is quite provocative, and she makes sure to include a hefty disclaimer in her original piece:

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.


Benz explains that she finds many parts of working toward a non-monogamous ideal dovetailing with feminist beliefs. Aside from shifting the focus in a relationship away from the possession dynamic (which is one often cited by abusers, as in "you belong to me") non monogamy also requires that both parties are very clear about what they are looking for from each partner in each relationship. She notes:

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.

Indeed, upending the predominant paradigm of relationships sounds intriguing. But can it work?

Frau Sally Benz actually gives up her second spot at Feministe, posting her thoughts to her own blog and opens the floor to a woman calling herself Eleanor Sauvage, a woman who has been a "secondary partner" in a non monogamous relationship. Sauvage begins by saying:

I actually think that whilst the commenters on both of the Feministe threads are right that poly can be very unfeminist and mono can be feminist, poly, precisely because poly is unusual and often marginalised, means that the kinds of gender dynamics which so often shape (especially heterosexual) mono relationships kinda have to be more up for grabs, for negotiation, for reshaping, in a poly relationship. That is, in our current context, there's a tendency for people to assume that they know how a mono relationship is meant to go: there are depictions of it everywhere! And this often means that mono relationships aren't explicitly negotiated; the power relations within them are often not the subject of discussion.


This is one of the points of the pro-nonmonogamy arguments that I found most intriguing - that their existence can force people to start navigating their actual idea of roles based on gender, and find a different path based on what works for each partner. Sauvage also points out how her own personal experiences led her to find nonmonogamy more beneficial to her mind state:

I wasn't sure how I'd feel about the poly thing, especially about being in the dreaded position of the secondary ('omg! you're the fucktoy!'), but I want to explain why this has worked and continues to work for me, and works for me precisely to counter my tendency to be self-effacing in relationships (as women are taught to be). First, I know that when he wants to be with me, he wants to be with me. He isn't feeling obligated, or like he ought to be spending time with me because we are in a relationship. He spends time with me for me. That has done some lovely things for my rather battered self-esteem, yet because the relationship is a secondary one, and we don't get to see each other that often, it also means that I really don't feel – as I have in the past – that my real sense of worth comes from the relationship. I feel recognised and valued for who I am, not for being a girlfriend. Interestingly, this also intervenes quite neatly in jealousy, which at least for me has arisen from the idea that ‘he'd rather be with her than with me!' Clearly, who I am to him is sexy, and fun, and interesting and exciting enough that he makes the time for me/us.


But, once again, the crux of Sauvage's argument is that the absence of established rules makes it easier to negotiate and navigate the relationships a bit better:

[T]hat negotiation is possible in a mono relationship-and is engaged in, in the ones that work, I think!-it's just that because poly is unusual, in my experience, people don't assume they have a right to things, or assume they're fulfilling your needs based on some pre-defined notion of what a relationship is, as is so clearly defined for mono relationships in almost every love story ever. And my articulation of my desires or needs don't need to be balanced against whether I think it's fair to expect this of my partner, because there's no presumption that they will simply have to fulfill it. Nor does my honest articulation of my desires become a potential space of breaking up because the person I'm with can't fulfill them (which is handy, given that I like girls as well, and would like to be able to like ‘em right up close, as it were, a set of desires I mostly kept from my previous partner, that my sweetie positively encourages me in). All the balancing acts involved in relationships are a bit more up for grabs because there's so few models for these relationships floating around.


While I am sure for many of us, the idea of nonmongamy is a lot to consider, I wanted to focus on the idea that both pieces brought up - what would our relationships with our partners be like without the idea of ingrained gender roles? And without the idea of possession?

*Note: In the comments to her original post, Frau Sally Benz explains why she prefers the term "nonmonogamy" to "polygamy":

# Frau Sally Benz says:
August 15th, 2009 at 10:06 am - Edit

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.


Nonmonogamy and Feminism: A Happy Couple [Feministe]
Another Perspective in Nonmonogamy [Feministe]
Cracking Myself Open [Jump Off the Bridge]

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What I find interesting about these arrangements is that, no matter how many people are involved, there always seems to be a primary relationship (made up of two people) that is the center of it all. In Sally's situation, she is the 3rd. She is not a part of the primary relationship that is the anchor of the bigger, "nonmonogamous" relationship.

I have a few friends who've played around with polyamory and open relationships. In every case, there was a primary relaitonship made up of one couple and then the occasional 3rd or 4th who would be involved with them for a number of months. The 3rd or 4th people might change, but the primary couple remained the same. All this says to me is that the primary couple is practicing a different kind of monogamy. Clearly those two have a bond with one another that is closer than what they have with anyone else on the planet. I imagine that in Sally's case the primary couple has made certain agreements about the relationship - some that Sally may not even be aware of - that helps reinforce the notion of the primary relationship. For instance, I bet there are certain thoughts and feelings that are expressed only between the people in the primary relationship. There may even be sexual acts that are only performed within the primary relationship.

By the by, all the polyamorous/open relationships I've known have not kept up the practice over the long haul. Either jealousy tore them apart or, more frequently, the hassle of keeping so many people happy just didn't seem worth the effort anymore & the primary couple returned to a more typical form of monogamy.