Articles about Polyamory seem to be springing up everywhere at the moment. It’s been dubbed “the future of love“, “the future of family” and a “sexual revolution” by some news sources. Pretty strong claims in my opinion. Terms like “revolutionary” make me feel uneasy for two important reasons.
The first reason is that the people asked to comment on their poly-ness and the people writing these articles tend to be overwhelmingly white and (upper) middle class. It’s like they are saying this is the future for privileged white people. As a privileged poly white person, I should know. I don’t think polyamory should be held up in such a bright spot light while the white “enlightened” community scream “Yes!! Yes!! This one relationship style is better than all others!! Look how inclusive we are being!! Just look at how progressive we are!! Big pat on the back, guys, we deserve it!” their smug faces bathed in the putrid glow of self assurance.
The second reason I don’t like suggestion that polyamory is the “future” of relationships is it suggests there’s something new and entirely unheard of about consensual non-monogamy. The implicit suggestion being that, yet again, middle class white people have somehow “invented” a relationship style. This is simply not true. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming poly folk for this at all (and obviously not all western poly people are white). No one has explicitly said they invented polyamory (although I’m sure some smart professor coined the term), but the way all these articles harp on about it you’d think that the nuclear family has been the norm for ALL OF TIME. Not to mention the assumption that the only places worth thinking about are rich white-majority ones. Sure, polyamory is on the rise in exotic places such as the United States of America or Western Europe. But all those African and Asian countries where marriage to more than one person has been legal for centuries? That doesn’t count!
Sure, in most of the polygamous world it is husbands that are permitted to have multiple wives through various cultural or religious practices. But do not ignore the small parts of the world where the sharing goes both ways and where women take multiple husbands! It’s also important to remember that in many of parts of Africa and Asia and some of south America polygamy was the norm until white invasion came along, killing and enslaving vast numbers of native people and forcing our own (Christian monogamous) culture upon the survivors. So for the white community who not so long ago were the invaders and enslavers, to come along and say they’ve created this whole new shiny “revolutionary” and progressive relationship style is not just incorrect, it’s pretty damn insulting.
So why do we, the rich western white, think we’re so damn revolutionary? Apart from the obvious self-centeredness that is inherent in our communities (the whole, let’s-only-teach-our-children-the-parts-of-history-we’re-proud-of bullshit, and the-news-only-matters-if-it’s-happening-to-white-folk nonsense), there is a legitimate change occurring at the moment. The western world is changing, and culture has to change alongside it or we’ll all perish.
People are beginning to think differently, and to break down some social norms, such as the definition of a family as being a man married to a woman with at least one child. Surely most people would agree this is a very narrow minded definition? But why did it become the stock image of a family in the white western world in the first place? One opinion is that the nuclear family was, in some ways, a result of the industrial revolution. Bare with me here for a minute.
All these factories and mines were suddenly blooming up all over the country. They were dangerous and difficult places to work in, but in order to make a few people very very rich they needed a large workforce to do awful jobs for very little money. How did they convince whole communities of people it was a good idea to work really fucking hard and risk getting injured every day for very little reward? One way they did it was by pushing these extreme manifestations of masculinity as the ideal for all men. It put social pressure on men to be hard working pride filled bread winners for their wives and children. They had to want to be perceived as hard workers and to take pride in doing something difficult and dangerous to provide for their family because if they didn’t the whole system would collapse. Women were pushed into a supporting role, the height of femininity was to support her husband and to raise his children, because the family was the man’s prize for all that fucking hard work. Of course I am completely over simplifying a very complex social situation, but you get the point. Masculinity was equated with danger, hard work, and the possession of a wife and family. There is no room in this model for anything but cis hetrosexual momogomous pairings. And without the family as the prize, what the fuck was there to work for?
Now, the mines and factories have been closed in vast numbers, unemployment is common and people have been replaced by robots in a lot of jobs (think about all the people who used to work the tills every time you use a self checkout). Unlike the right wing thinkers who are influencing USA and UK politics in terrifying numbers at the moment, I am not suggesting (or hoping), for a return to the good ole days (when America was somehow “great”) of working down the mines and staying in the closet. What I do realise though is the type of work available to people and the number of jobs in general has drastically changed in the last 30 years or so. Just like the nuclear family needed to occur in order for all the industrialists to make it in the eighteen and nineteen hundreds, our way of thinking needs to change for us to charter these new waters.
We, the privileged western world, are facing a situation where the number of jobs are likely continue to decrease but majority of jobs that do exist are safer and have a lower impact on our bodies but a higher impact on our mental health. We’re also stuck in a situation where the employed world and our governments are turning a blind eye to the problems, convinced of the old idea that somehow everyone can have a job if only they work hard enough and that is the only way society can function.
However, the youth are more educated and politically aware than we’ve ever been before and thanks to the internet, more connected to people who think and feel as we do. We are starting to notice the cracks in our cultural rhetoric. Perhaps the values of our grandparents aren’t very useful, we are thinking, perhaps they are in fact damaging both to our self expression and our wellbeing. Maybe we shouldn’t be striving to have a spouse and 2.4 children as our ultimate life goal?
Let me get back to polyamory. Polyamory is just one example of how our thinking is changing. I think its rise in popularity in the western world is a product of many positive changes that have broken down some of the power of the nuclear family (although I recognise it is still held up on a pedestal as the ideal by the overwhelming majority of western people). First of all feminism paved the way for women to be considered not just as supporting characters / prizes to work for but as actual human beings in their own right (who knew?). Secondly, LGBTIQ+ rights have been fought for, and although the fight continues, more people are accepting of non heterosexual relationships. Thirdly, the way we are thinking about gender is evolving. We are realising that gender is socially constructed, that trans people are not ill, that gender is not binary, and that there are many ways to express your gender and sexuality. There is less stigma attached to casual sex and the kink world is flourishing. All of these things make the cis het man-woman pairing begin to seem, umm, a little short sighted?
My point is if you believe that gender and sexuality are a spectrum at a global level and fluid and changing at an individual level, and you believe that consensual sex between adults is never shameful but an joyful form of self expression, love and pleasure, then you are more likely to agree that heterosexual monogamous relationships are not the only way to be. On an economic and emotional level, we are at a position in our society where people need support. Life is fucking stressful (for a bit of personal context: I’ve been unemployed and actively seeking work for four months now, and my previous job led me to have a stress-induced nervous breakdown) and if you can have love, support and respect from multiple people you are likely to cope better. The idea that we should only get emotional, sexual and practical support from one other person in our lives is stupid and kind of terrifying to me. Here’s a nice personal account on how polyamory can help to support parenting.
For the haters out there, if you think monogamy is “natural”, perhaps you should learn some history, or have a think about how many times you’ve wanted to cheat on someone, or just have a chat with a person who lives in a culture where polygamy is the norm. Then, get over yourself. I’m not saying I think everyone should be poly. I’m saying it’s a legitimate lifestyle choice that has been practised by human beings all over the world since the dawn of humanity. If we look at the whole of history humans have probably lived in larger social family groups for much much longer than we’ve been monogamous.
So do I think polyamory is “the future” or “revolutionary”? Fuck no. I think it’s more accurate to say it was a large part of the past, and it’s coming back into our consciousness (those of us who banished it from our culture) because the youth of the western world is beginning to see the flaws in the nuclear family. They are beginning to feel free to embrace their personal identity and sexuality and celebrate the differences in others around them. Will we see more poly people in the future? For my own love life, I fucking hope so. But really, I think we need to open our eyes to this brave new world, actively fight people who are trying to push us back in time, and think of kinder solutions to the robot problem. Solutions that support everyone.
* Just wanted to add a note here reminding you this is just an opinion. One of many. I am not a historian or anthropologist. I’m a sex blogger. I’m a white cis woman. I love to have sex and I’m attracted to many different people who express their gender in many different ways. I’m non-monogamous and sex positive and supportive of all members of the queer community. Even if they sometimes don’t support me back. I’m scared of the right wing movements I’ve seen recently. I’m scared of nuclear war. I’m scared my immigrant husband will be deported. I’m scared of becoming homeless. I’m worried by the huge rise in rough sleepers and use of food banks. I just want for everyone to be supported and treated with respect and kindness. I’m pro a basic income. This is the author who wrote this personal opinion piece. Be aware of my bias and privilege.
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