misconceptions about polyamory: mononormativity
I’m preparing a presentation on the misconceptions surrounding polyamory, which honestly requires some care to prevent from cascading into a series of presentations. The natural place to start is the cultural misconception that such a practice, orientation, lifestyle, or philosophy of intimate relationships does not exist at all, or exists only in relation to a monogamous baseline, for this mononormative quality of our culture is the genesis for many (and the catalyst for all) of the misconceptions that follow—including those internal to the internal poly dialogue.
The most obvious variety (strategy, if you will) of marginalization is erasure. The relative invisibility of poly people and of polyamory as a type of relationship testifies to the youth of our collective culture and identity, and certainly of our movement. For the most part, responsible non-monogamous relationships play no role in popular narratives and do not even factor into the general awareness. This exchange from “The Mask” provides a nice illustration:
Peggy: You’re Mr. Nice Guy?
Peggy: Oh, Stanley, do you realize how much mail we got about that letter? I mean, there are literally hundreds of women out there looking for a guy just like you.
Peggy: Yeah. Do you know how hard it is to find a decent man in this town? Most of them think monogamy is some kind of wood.
In the (in this respect, pretty accurate) universe of the story, monogamy is so equated with ethical relationship practices that the word itself goes largely unrecognized.* Monogamy has certainly come into question in the decades since dialogue like this went essentially unchallenged, and in light of the increasing recognition of open and “monogamish” relationships it likely wouldn’t today. There remains a reticence to depart in any enduring way from dyads (and when non-dyadic relationship structures do appear they still tend to be contextualized by crime).
The direct long-term consequence of erasure is that ostensible monogamy (monogamy + maybe cheating) serves as the template for new or emerging relationships, and as the standard against which alternatives are measured. To be “seeing someone” generally means (a) to be unavailable and (b) to be part of a couple, and often (c) to be courting the person in question, for “the long haul” if not necessarily for marriage. The success of an existing relationship is then judged by how well it conforms to these expectations: how faithful (meaning sexually exclusive) both parties have been, how long the relationship has lasted (how removed each party is from singlehood), when (generally not if) they plan to be married, and—my favorite—whether they miss being single (which tends to mean “dating”). Meanwhile, alternative relationships are often criticized and shamed purely on the grounds that they do not conform to them: people with multiple partners are “greedy”, while people not seeking long-term relationships or marriage “can’t commit” (or, for the fashionably sympathetic, “suffer” from “commitment anxiety”). As insults, “player” and “slut” carry wholly different social connotations and moral implications grounded in patriarchal sexism, but they both serve to trivialize the emotional and intellectual significances of multiple relationships that happen to be semiserious, simultaneous, or short.
None of this necessarily reflects ill will on the part of monogamists. The absence of scripts leaves most of us unprepared to comprehend, much less accept**, unconventional relationships. (It’s worth pointing out, too, that monogamy as a convention may yet be problematic—driving rather than cycling is also a convention—but need not carry the normative assumptions or misguided values it currently does.) Instead we are incredulous and suspicious of poly people and lifestyles, which itself has a variety of social consequences: We have our love challenged and our motivations questioned; we are (somehow) conflated both with religious polygynists and political subversives; our relationship models and philosophies are assumed to be less sustainable, “natural”, and practical; and they are cited as evidence that we are unfit professionals or parents. The monogamous baseline (reflected in the term non-monogamy itself) licenses people to expect us to defend and justify our alternative models (against the null hypothesis that they are undesirable and detrimental), but these models are scapegoated anyway for whatever problems, as in all relationships, actually do arise.
And mononormativity undermines healthy monogamy. There is, of course, somewhat more monogamy preached than practiced. In the absence of even monogamous scripts for negotiating relationship boundaries and expectations, moreover, a huge proportion of us can end up disagreeing over whether or not we’re even exclusive. Assumptions and habits like these, while not essential to monogamy, do no favors to its image, especially in the view of many polyamorists.
It’s tempting to make the case that monogamy is not inherently natural or more stable or in any way superior as a relationship model, but i don’t see a place for it in a discussion of norms, freedoms, and respect. Regarding the literature that undermines these ideas, Barken and Langdridge have this to say:
Clearly such literature takes mononormativity on in its own terms (the embedded assumptions that what is ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ is somehow ideal and superior) rather than challenging such slippages directly. However, it does important work in situating monog- amy in its cultural and historical context and alerting us to the ethnocentrism of viewing the current prescribed western form of relating as essential.
Important, agreed. That monogamy possesses these ‘virtues’ is a widespread misconception…but the underlying, facilitating misconception is that such qualities as ‘naturalness’ and ‘normality’ are virtues at all. We did not evolve, or develop agriculture, or invent money in the networked age, and the lessons we learn about our sexual development as a species will at best contextualize and inform—not direct or discredit—our ongoing efforts at developing a mature relationship ethos.
For a far better presentation than i’ll be giving, watch Anlina Sheng’s talk from SkeptiCamp Winnipeg (queued to the mononormativity segment).
* I realize that Peggy’s point is that monogamy goes largely unpracticed by the men of Edge City; but mononormativity is no less established through monogamy as an aspiration and an ostentation, rather than a reality, than heteronormativity through the idealization of opposite-gender relationships.
** How strange, too, that we tend to consider comprehension a prerequisite for acceptance. David’s Freedom To Marry Day vow concluded with a pithy refutation (paraphrased): “I vow to support all ways of loving, even those I do not understand.”