Why (my) Polyamory is Feminist

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When people who have no experience of polyamory find out I am in a non-monogamous relationship their first reaction is often pity. After my colleagues at a new job found out I had two boyfriends one of their first reactions was to assume that the reason for me not being monogamous was because neither of my partners was willing to commit. They thought that if one of them became willing to settle down that I would give up on the other one and set off into the sunset, (I suspect that if I was male the reaction would have been quite different). This view of my relationships could not be further from the truth. By being poly I feel empowered as a feminist and I have written this article to explain why.

When we enter into any relationship with another person we enter into a series of expectations of how that relationship will function. Most of the time these expectations are not voiced, they are considered to be obvious. To borrow an example, you don’t hug your waiter or tip your mother. When we enter into a monogamous romantic relationship there are a whole bag of expectations and obligations that come with that, and most people don’t ever negotiate or discuss these, they are considered to be part of a ‘natural’ package. We may expect our partner not to sleep with anyone else, to meet our parents, to buy us a present on valentines day. We will feel justified in being angry and upset if these expectations are not met, even though they were never agreed on.

What being poly does is it forces you to vocalise and negotiate these assumptions. We can no longer default to societies ready made package of expectations for our relationships. Society hasn’t got round to creating packages of expectations for poly relationships yet. It forces you to break down what about a relationship is important to you and your partner and write a new set of expectations. Do you both actually want to meet each other’s parents? Do either of you even like valentines day? Do you want to have sex with other people? Do you want to have sex at all?

This is a great process because it means you and your partners end up with awesome communication skills that many people never develop. And communication is a fundamental part of a happy relationship with reasonable expectations. And you have both formally and actively agreed to this relationship, not just passively agreed to it by default.

So what does this have to do with feminism? Well for many people the package of expectations that society provides for their relationships is based on heteronormativity. It might include assumptions about which partner will do the housework, which partner will buy the other one flowers, which partner will take care of the bulk of any childcare responsibilities.

For me a feminist relationship is one where partners sit down and talk to each other about what relationship package they want. They do this on equal terms and their wants and needs are equally respected. If they are of opposite genders and both want a relationship where they get married, and the male partner goes out to work and the female partner stays home and raises children, then that is a feminist relationship. If they both want a relationship where the male partner stays home and looks after children and doesn’t sleep with anyone else and the female partner goes out and works and dates other people, then that is a feminist relationship. If they both only want to see each other once a month for sex and never go out on dates then that is a feminist relationship. As long as the negotiation is done on equal terms, then anything is possible.

Being poly is not the only way to have these kind of conversations, many monogamous people have amazing communication skills and some poly people have poor communication skills. But being poly is an almost sure way to open up the dialogue. And that’s why my polyamory is feminist.

About Greta

Greta is a friendly student from Manchester who has been poly for the last two years. Interests include feminism, activism, housing co-ops, positive body image, kink, veganism, radio 4, cats and classical music. Has achieved mild and unexpected fame through www.nakedvegancooking.com.

11 Responses to Why (my) Polyamory is Feminist

  1. Lis says:

    Definitely. I think that part of the way I discovered feminism was through doing polyamory and through the messaging I received that this means talking; some of that talking led me towards feminism.

    Where you say that “society hasn’t got round to creating packages of expectations for poly relationships yet”, I think that in general I agree, but that poly community is certainly starting to manufacture those packages.

    Sometimes that worries me, because poly community is not institutionally feminist. Like you say, the practice can spark feminism, and I think that on balance there is a lot more feminist tendency within poly community than without. But there is not a consensus that feminism is necessary for poly (and all) relationships including women. And where people in the community are feminist, often they aren’t the ones most formative to communities and with the loudest voices.

    So I’m worried because I think that sometimes these new packages are being manufactured without feminism at the core, and that they may end up replicating the sexism of hetero/mononormative relationship patterns.

    I feel like we have a relatively narrow window (“unicorn hunting” is a sexist concept that is already designed, manufactured and distributed) to ensure that the poly community doesn’t replicate the sexist mistakes of the “free love” movement before it.

    Some people would say that it’s already too late; others, that there’s a constant queer feminist influx into our communities and that as the people change, so will the politics. But I think at least we need to be vigilant!

  2. Toowipic says:

    Firstly, I’d like to say that I really enjoyed the article Greta, as someone who has only recently read ‘Ethical slut’ and has no experience of negotiating poly relationships, I liked your description of “packages”, which I think is a term that will help me to talk to people about the ideas involved with poly relationships.

    Also, I had a couple of questions for Lis, if you don’t mind?

    I wanted to know why “unicorn hunting” is a sexist concept, because to my understanding it just refers to the relative difficulty of finding someone/s to share relationships with given that polyamory is so new and “out there” for a lot of people? Maybe I’ve got that wrong alltogether?

    I also wanted to suggest that surely the poly community is automatically Feminist in that every relationship should be individually negotiated? I would have thought that the effort that (hopefully) would go into that negotiation would empower everyone involved to negotiate honestly, meaning that noone signs up for something they don’t want?

    I mean of course there are bound to be people around with sexist attitudes, that’s the nature of the world at the moment, but how long could such people be involved in a community like this without being alienated and going away or being educated and changing their attitude?

  3. [...] this is a bit of an obscure one… but I was reading this and it mentioned how when one enters into any relationship there are a bunch of unspoken [...]

  4. Sina Muscarina says:

    Nice article, for me the connection to feminism was not really clear , though.
    Which kind of feminism are you identifying with?
    I personally prefer Gender equality or queer theories for that matter.
    I liked reading your article, very well put.

    • Sina Muscarina says:

      oh and many assumptions in feminism are built around heteronormativity as well, lets say the 2nd wave feminists, who have political power (unlike the 3rd wave feminists – the sex positive feminists, who would not be used to win political agendas ;-)…). So, for me the things you relate to feminism being outside heteronormativity might be a little short sighted.

  5. Greta says:

    Lis: I also think that polyamory might have been the root of me discovering feminism. It made me start thinking about gender in all kinds of new and exciting ways and recognising the oppression in society, it can be a powerful force! I I am not sure I have enough experience of the poly community to judge if relationship packages are starting to appear. My experience of poly people is mainly a small group of queer, feminist people in Manchester most of whom I have dated…It would be really interesting to hear what kind of expectations you have come across.

    Toowipic: My understanding of unicorn hunting is that it refers specifically to an established male-female couple looking for a bisexual woman to form a triad with them. I am not 100% sure though. I don’t think the poly community is automatically feminist (although I have been very lucky that my introduction to it has been). I think that the negotiation of relationships can be done on unequal terms where one party has more power than the other based on privilege, this is something I am considering writing a follow up article about because it’s a complicated concept. People can end up signing up for something they are unhappy with if there are reasons for them holding less negotiating power. I think one of the most powerful things about the poly community is that people who come into it end up being educated about gender issues, that’s how I discovered them!

    Sina: The kind of feminism I identify with is one that defines itself as seeking liberation from all gender based oppression. It’s really just another way of talking about gender equality, but with emphasis put on women’s oppression as they are much more often the victims. There are definitely heteronormative currents in some feminist circles, especially in the form of transphobia which is one of the main problems I have come across. I think the sharp distinction between different waves of feminism is a little false, although I would definitely put myself in the third wave if pushed. Ultimately I would always put ideology before terminology.

    Thanks so much for all the feedback, all comments, positive and negative, much appreciated!

  6. No says:

    You’ve expressed perfectly the reason why I’m much happier being poly. I feel much freer in poly relationships to make my own decisions, because the starting point isn’t one with a particular model I’m assumed to want. I realise that is an ideal for monogamous relationships, too, but I have on occasion found other people’s narratives very difficult to fight; the time a partner assumed that we had become monogamous from the moment he deemed the relationship to be serious, for example, even though I had told him I was seeing other people.

    On the other hand, it must be said that the poly community has expectations and assumptions, too. More than once people have assumed I’m a ‘secondary’ partner because my partner is married, and found it difficult to understand a relationship not structured with that hierarchy. There are also people who use the word ‘poly’ to describe the relationship of smug-looking men with their harems of women, which don’t look very feminist to me. I do wonder if poly would become more heteronormative and constricting if it became more mainstream.

    Great post, Greta.

    • Greta says:

      The minefield of the primary/secondary division is so interesting, it’s definitely a way that poly relationships can be considered to have a pre-defined relationship package, and something I would like to address in the future. Thanks for pointing it out!

  7. Aegithalos says:

    Totally with you here. My partner and I came around to poly because we were picking apart the socialised concept of monogamy, equality and ownership from a feminist perspective. We decided that we don’t need or wish to own or control one another, and that meant we could see other people.

    It fits us very very well.

    http://polytoolkit.wordpress.com/
    http://dayasalion.wordpress.com

  8. Tess says:

    I half read this article ages ago and stuck it on the reading list for later. Only just realised it was you Greta! Loved what you had to say by the way, some really cool points I hadn’t thought of before. Escaping normal “expectations” is certainly freeing.

    I do *sort* of feel it’s a bit silly to call it feminism though, it’s a word that seems to mean something different to everyone almost so it all gets very lost and ends up not really meaning much. That’s my perspective anyway.

  9. [...] Even though she quotes Dossie Easton saying that “polyamory does not follow the rather strict forms of marriage and gender in relationships that are found in many polygamous cultures, [such] as in Islam and Mormon[ism]“, the main focus of the piece is Dr Brooks’ research which claims that these types of relationships are all filled with disease and violence. If Ms Lowbridge had bothered to do a bit more research herself, she might have discovered that the Philpotts were Doing It Wrong. Polyamory is about consent and communication and so these kinds of relationships are more likely to be equal, not less! Greta wrote a wonderful post on Polytical last year about polyamory and feminism: [...]

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