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Polyamory: Alternative Sexualities and the Subversion of Identities

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Meg Metcalf

on 1 March 2015

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Transcript of Polyamory: Alternative Sexualities and the Subversion of Identities

Polyamory, "...describes a form of relationship where it is possible, valid, and worthwhile to maintain (usually long term) intimate and sexual relationships with multiple partners simultaneously" (Haritaworn 515)
Often conflated or confused with polygamy, swinging, open-marriage, and adultery.
Polyamory & Resistance: Challenging Monogamy and the Limits of Feminist Sexual Discourse
Feminist Critiques of Marriage
Elizabeth Sheff's Reseach on Polyamorous Women
Expanded Roles. Shifting Gender, Sexual, and Family and Monogamous Cultural Roles
Sexuality: High Sex Drive and Increased Sexual Fluidity
“The mists of time and various disguises of prejudice conveniently obscure other ways of living a sexual life, and the merits of
diverse sexual cultures.
This resilient will-not-to-know is backed up by an assumption, which is deeply embedded in perhaps all our cultures, but strongly in the west: that our sexuality is the most spontaneously
thing about us. It is the basis for some of our most passionate feelings and commitments. Through it, we experience ourselves as real people; it gives us
our identities
, our sense of self, as men and women, as heterosexual and homosexual, ‘
normal’ or ‘abnormal’
, ‘
natural’ or ‘unnatural
’…this gives rise to a pyramidical model of sex, to a
sexual hierarchy
stretching downwards from the apparently nature-endowed correctness of heterosexual genital intercourse to the bizarre manifestations of
‘the perverse
,’ hopefully safely buried at the base but unfortunately always erupting in dubious places” -Jeffrey Weeks
Erupting in Dubious Places
A quarter of the married men in the United States and a sixth of the married women reported having at least one extramarital affair. The Chicago ratios applied to today's population: 19 million American men and 12 million American women have had at least one extramarital affair. (These numbers are estimated to be low, due to the sensitive nature of this topic).
National Health and Social Life Survey: Sexual Conduct of Americans
(National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago 1992)
Almost 90 percent of the men surveyed and 94 percent of the women believed that extramarital sex was ''always wrong'' or ''almost always wrong.''
Feminism and Sexual Liberation

Feminists have have varying responses to the topic of sexuality. For every feminist analysis of sexual liberation, there was another feminist counterargument.
Almost inevitably, people have been marginalized by feminist critiques of sexuality. Some examples would be the Woman Identified Woman, or feminists who advocated for seperatism.
The 1960's sexual revolution advocated non-monogamy, and was embraced by many feminists. However, many were disillusioned to find male dominance inside the sexual revolution. Feminism was often sidelined in New Left activist movements. This led to a separate movement for women's liberation. Perhaps this is why non-monogamy is marginalized in feminist writing today?
The social organization of sexuality has relied on compulsory heterosexuality
as well as
compulsory monogamy. A stunning example of this is evident in the
normalized social rituals of dating and marriage.

Heterosexual monogamous couples are normal, and all else is still considered deviant. The methods by which this is instituted, as well as the reasons for doing so, are rooted in a discussion of power.
Polyamory & Resistance: Challenging Monogamy and the Limits of Feminist Sexual Discourse
I will argue that polyamory presents a challenge to heteronormative constructions and social organization of sexuality, gender, and understandings of identity. Therefore, a critical examination of polyamory and the institutionalization of compulsory monogamy offers an opportunity for a radical reinterpretation and subversion of gender, sexuality, and socially assigned identities. Although Polyamory has been discursively marginalized, it is incredibly
to feminist theory and, I will argue,
for a truly intersectional feminist understanding.
My argument is situated in various social movements, and references various discourses, theories, and philosophies. Because of this, I would like to start by providing you with a social and historical context with which to better understand my claims.
Social Construction and Regulation of Sexuality
As theorists of sexuality have long argued, sexuality...is always embedded in systems of signifiers and meaning that well exceed any simple biological ‘facts’ and which render it profoundly ambiguous and ritualistic - Kenneth Plummer, Sexualities
Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski conducted field work in the Trobriand Islands of the Western Pacific. His study serves as an excellent example of the way that sexuality is constructed.
Malinowski's Findings:
Women and girls were just as assertive about pursuing sex
Women and men have equal access to divorce, and there is no stigma surrounding it. Leaving the spouse for another is recongized as valid.
There is no social stigma about children having sex, and they start at a very young age
Scratching (to the point of drawing blood) is considered sexual foreplay.
Unlike many western cultures (which have had centuries of christian dominance) the islanders saw no relation between sex and reproduction.
Clearly, attempting to define sexuality or pleasure is impossible without specific context. Norms govern the sexual relationships and acts that people participate in. Alternatives choices outside the
are ignored or made deviant. Even acts which give pleasure are normalized or deviant. An example would be the islanders use of scratching as foreplay. In the U.S.Today, scratching would fall under BDSM ( which is mostly marginalized ). This goes to show the complex specificities of context which construct acceptable sexualities.
Motivations for the Social Organization of Sexuality: An Interpretation of Jeffrey Weeks
Kinship and Family Systems
Economic and Social Organization
Social Regulation
Political Interventions
Development of Cultures of Resistance
Power is at the Root
There is no doubt that the media plays a large role in maintaining norms of monogamy.
In her influential essay
Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, Adrienne Rich
(1980) brought attention to the erasure of lesbians within feminist literature, and insisted that feminists recognize the importance of compulsory heterosexuality. Rich demanded that feminists start regarding lesbianism with more than just tolerance, or with a passing token mention.
I argue that the erasure of alternative sexualities, polyamory in particular, needs to be attended to by feminists. Compulsory Monogamy and it's alternatives have important implications for Feminists.
"We must say we want sex on our own terms. We must build a movement that validates the right... to say yes instead of no, a movement that thinks we haven't heard enough about sex rather than too much and which reclaims an eroticism not defined by a simple political perspective or narrow vision which insists on excluding women to sustain it's standards. We are searching for ways to examine sexuality, consent, and power. We want to expand what we understand about sexuality so that more of us can live the desires we envision. -Amber Hollibaugh, My Dangerous Desires
Many Feminists have offered critiques of marriage. However, monogamy is rarely mentioned in any detail. A discussion of compulsory monogamy is central to feminist concerns. A truly intersectional feminist analysis must be inclusive of alternative sexualities.
In the past, feminists had to fight to insist that LGBT issues were
relevant to Feminism
. Today, those who question compulsory monogamy have to fight the same struggle for inclusion. Many mainstream voices are pushing for equality and
, attempting to prove that we are all the same. The problem, of course, is that
we are not all the same.
This popular emphasis on tolerance marginalizes those who are too 'dangerous' or 'disruptive' to include in the fight for equality...
Polyamory is only one among several issues that are sidelined for the sake of mainstream acceptance. Exploring and creating a sexual identity or relationship outside of the predetermined choices and norms necessitates a renegotiation of the constructed social roles of gender, sexuality, and family. This offers empowerment through self-definition and shifting power relations. A thorough understanding of the social organization of sexuality must be aware of contextual specificities and a historical view of social construction. This is necessary for a truly intersectional feminist understanding.
Polyamory Defined
Principles of Polyamory
Radical honesty
Privileging love and sex over jealousy
- Elizabeth Emens, Monogamy's Law
Jealousy and possesiveness
are seen as symbols of romantic love. If your partner is jealous, they must really love you!
Supermonogamy: Everyone has only
one true love
, ever. See: Prince Charming
Divorce Rates
Monogamy as biology
: Humans are monogamous naturally, to ensure survival of the species
Cultural Narratives of Monogamy & Mixed Messages
"Considerable data suggest that humans have evolved a dual reproductive strategy: life long and/or serial monogamy in conjunction with clandestine adultery" -Oxford University Evolutionary Psychology
So while there is strong evidence for the genetic predisposition to non-monogamy, and many individuals participating in 'affairs' we still consider non-monogamy "wrong." Why is this?
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