Representation, or not, in the New York Times' "Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?"
This morning the Sunday New York Times landed on hundred of thousands of doorsteps, with its Times Magazine cover story "Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?", which I posted about three days ago when it went online. Already it has drawn a lot of attention, including from the right wing ("This Is How the Elite Poisons Our Culture", says the National Review). I'll get to that soon.
But first, some of the people in the story and close to it have important perspectives on its failings, especially its narrowness.
Among the couples who were photographed — mostly made to look all too serious and somber — were black activist Kevin Patterson of Poly Role Models and his wife Antoinette. They've posted a response on Huff Post. Excerpts:
How Representation Works...or Doesn’t
By Kevin Patterson and Antoinette Crumby Patterson
Love in abundance: The couple in a more representative photo.
In the early afternoon of Thursday May 11th, I got an email from a colleague. ... She congratulated me on my appearance in the New York Times. ... But before I had a chance to even read that email, I received a second one from the same colleague: “Oh my gosh, Kevin! I just read the article. You must be upset. I’m so sorry!” ...It pretty much encapsulated how the whole day went.
...Unfortunately, any perspective I could add [to the article] ... is buried beneath a sad story of floundering marriages. The sad story of floundering marriages [is] both valid and valuable. My work definitely covers that as well. But it covers more than that...and therein lies the problem.
"Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?" is predominantly the story of a married couple, Elizabeth and Daniel, who have grown dissatisfied in their lives together. ... Daniel researched ethical non-monogamy and discussed it with his wife. What followed was not ethical non-monogamy....
Elizabeth shot the idea down. Only to find romance with a new fellow anyway. First, behind her husband’s back, then to his face without his willful participation...despite his pain. The guy Elizabeth took up with? He was also unhappily married and cheating on his spouse. ... Look, I’m not judging. ... Partners that come to ethical non-monogamy by way of infidelity needs to be discussed. These are already being discussed. In fact, the idea that ethical and consensual non-monogamy are just the product of unhappy marriages is already the predominant narrative. We’ve heard these stories before. They get pushed out to mainstream media every few months and frankly it’s gotten boring.
It’s clear that [author] Susan Dominus has a specific story that she is trying to tell. But I question who that really serves. The non-monogamous newcomers who don’t fit this couple-centric view won’t find any love here. ... The stable and happy couples featured [in the photos] are virtually voiceless in this article. What little speech we’re given is limited to seemingly reluctant acceptance of the situation we’ve found ourselves in.
...Why were our names and faces used... only to ignore our observations?
...Now, I’m not flat out saying that my wife and I are only included as token people of color. I am challenging anyone to show me what the difference would be if we were. Our voices are mostly unused, but our faces are pretty prominent in a photo that shocked the people in our lives. One friend said it is the saddest they’ve ever seen either of us look. Another said that, without context, they would’ve believed all of the photos to be from a story about divorce. A visual storyline to match the narrative of non-exclusive but unsatisfying marriages.
...We don’t need to be made into a compelling story. We already are. The story isn’t how we exist, it’s that we exist. All we need to do is open our mouths to speak our own truths. When someone on the outside of us attempts to speak for us, regardless of the platform, they carry in their preconceived notions...and worse they carry their desire to shoehorn us into those notions. While I thank and appreciate the New York Times for trying, what they gave us was not nearly what was promised or expected or needed.
But, hey… I guess it could be worse. At least there weren’t any stock photos of three pairs of white feet sticking out from under a white duvet.
Kevin Patterson may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Go read his whole article (May 13, 2017).
● Their piece was hosted by Ruby Bouie Johnson, organizer of the PolyDallas Millennium conference. She posted her own response to the Times. Excerpts:
What the New York Times Neglected To See
Chase and Ruby Johnson
As a Black American therapist who serves clients that practice polyamory, and as someone who practices polyamory myself, I looked forward to the publication of the NY Times article, “Is an open marriage a happier marriage?” There is a common contrived narrative about consensual nonmonogamy that is pervasive in mass media representations, but I had high hopes that the article would disrupt the trend. I knew several colleagues and friends who do not fit the typical mold were interviewed for it.
...I instead discovered that the author presented a pigeonholed, whitewashed, homogeneous experience as the whole of polyamory. ... Within the professional and personal communities I belong to, there has been much discussion about these simplifications. When I refer to whitewashing, what I mean is that the representation of what is the norm for polyamory is 30-somethings, affluent, white, thin, triad. Most often two women and one guy. ...
White, cisgender, and heterosexual are far from the only demographic that are practicing open relationships. Research into polyamorous relationships and my own experience show a wide variety of diversity within the community. Those who practice polyamory are more likely to be sexually fluid, they often have children and strong co-parenting relationships with multiple people, they have all shapes and sizes of bodies, belong to every race. The media representation of open relationships ... is actually concealing more about the reality than it reveals....
There is a phenomenal depth of experience, an unimaginable range of stories, within polyamorous communities. I know quads that have been together for 40 years. I know people who prefer to live alone and spend time at various lovers’ and partners’ homes when they choose. The article did not offer any language that spoke of this diversity in the structure of relationships, from solo poly, to vees, triads, quads, tribes, families, polycules. All we saw was couples and friends with benefits.
...For African-American communities, the language is different. It’s about the village, it’s about the family. It’s about sexual fluidity that is celebrated and liberated. It is about decolonizing and reclaiming what was historically, traditionally, their culture, before it was stripped from them by the Middle Passage. ...
Go read her whole article (May 12, 2017).
Update May 15: The author of the NYT article, Susan Dominus, has put up a reddit page for questions and feedback about it.