Philosopher Carrie Jenkins: Make way for polyamory
Carrie Jenkins is a Kind of a Big Thing philosopher at the University of British Columbia. She's an out poly with two male partners and has just published a book, What Love Is: And What It Could Be.
Let's start with a long article of hers that's going around. She originally published How a hackneyed romantic ideal is used to stigmatise polyamory in the thinky magazine Aeon. It was then picked up by the major newsmagazine The Week, which retitled it Monogamy is Out. Polyamory is In (a grabby title but not the point of the article). Yahoo News reprinted it from there.
Excerpts from the article as published in The Week:
There's no longer anything unusual about wanting an open relationship. Many who consider themselves progressive about sex, gender, love, and relationships know this. It's just that almost nobody in an open relationship wants to be open about it. What's surprising is that so many people feel the need for secrecy.
I've been out as polyamorous for years. Because of this, non-monogamous people who aren't out often feel able to talk to me about their own situations. When I go to conferences, I can't help noticing all the philosophers who are in closeted non-monogamous relationships. This discrepancy between reality and socially acknowledged reality can be disorienting; the "official" number of non-monogamous people in the room is almost always one (me).
So what's going on? No doubt there are several factors at work, but I want to talk about one that's both powerful and insidious: Non-monogamy isn't considered "romantic."
Romantic love is widely considered to be the best thing life has to offer: "Failing" at romance is often construed as failing at life. ... This monogamous ideal is supposed to appeal to women especially.
...According to the stereotypes, single women are desperate to "lock down" a man, while men are desperate to avoid commitment. There's nothing new here: Monogamy has historically been gendered. Even in situations where marrying more than one woman has been illegal, it has often been normal for men to have mistresses, but different rules have applied to women....
Our language undermines gender-related optimism about monogamous romantic ideals: there is no word for a male "mistress"; romantic comedies are "chick flicks." "Romance" novels are marketed to and consumed by women. Brides are "given away" by men to other men. ...
...Women who enter voluntarily into non-monogamous relationships are a direct challenge to the idea that women are "naturally" monogamous. They are socially penalized to maintain the status quo. A non-monogamous woman will be portrayed as debased and disgusting — a "slut." When I have discussed my open relationships online, I have been called many other colorful names.
My internet trolls focus on sex, partly because presenting non-monogamous relationships as "just sex" makes it easier to degrade them, and partly because women who violate the monogamy norm — whose sexuality is out of (someone's) control — are a threat to an ancient feeling of entitlement over women's sexuality and reproductive potential. In contrast, a non-monogamous man is, at least sometimes, liable to be regarded as a "stud."
Apart from monogamy, the only other relationship structure that controls paternity in a similar way is patriarchal polygamy, which is stigmatized in contemporary North America, for reasons including bona fide feminism as well as racism and cultural imperialism. One effect of this is that monogamy is seen as the only fair and liberal alternative.
Actually, there are many alternatives. But to tolerate them is to tolerate widespread social uncertainty about who is having sex with whom....
I believe that the "romantic-ness" of romantic love is largely socially constructed, and as such malleable. We collectively write the "script" that determines the shape of the privileged ("romantic") relationship style. This script has changed, and will continue to change. But currently that process goes on largely below the radar: We aren't supposed to see it happening, or realize that we can control it....
We must get beyond this. We need to question the limits we have placed on what counts as a "romantic" relationship. Freedom to love — the right to choose one's own relationships without fear, shame or secrecy — is critical, not just for individuals but for us all collectively. Non-conformity is the mechanism that reshapes the social construct to better represent who we are, and who we want to be. Instead of forcing our relationships to conform to what society thinks love is, we could force the image of love to conform to the realities of our relationships.
But it won't be easy. If the love of a polyamorous triad is seen as "romantic" and hence as valuable as the love of a monogamous couple, then the triad should have the same social and legal privileges as the couple....
Nor could we defend the countless ways in which non-monogamous people are stigmatized and rejected....
It's far easier to pretend that this is not really happening. Or that it's not really a big deal. Perhaps you feel that way right now: Perhaps you're thinking you don't know any non-monogamous people. But I wouldn't be too sure. Until quite recently, an awful lot of people thought that all their friends and relatives were straight.
Read the whole article in The Week (February 9, 2017) or in Aeon (February 3).
Coming next: more about the book What Love Is: And What It Could Be.