Feminism and relationship structure: What does non-monogamy mean for feminism?

This post will be loosely based on an excellent workshop I attended at last year’s Polyday on the subject of feminism and polyamory – a workshop I had been meaning to put together myself and that was well facilitated by a member of the Bristol Feminist Network. Polyday is an annual community event for those who believe “happy and honest relationships don’t have to be monogamous”. Being in multiple relationships myself, I appreciate this chance to meet other people in various non-monogamous and polyamorous relationship structures and to share skills and ideas both personal and political.

One definition of polyamory is “the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved” (Wikipedia). It is also referred to as consensual non-monogamy and distinguished from ‘cheating’ which usually happens without the consent of at least one of the people involved. Just like with sexuality and gender labels, there is no single description of polyamory that suits all; it is an umbrella term for non-monogamous set-ups which acknowledges variation.

It is the self-constructed nature of these relationships which I believe gives them the potential to be empowering. Because partners tend to create their own guidelines for how they want their relationships to work, there are fewer cracks through which insidious power-dynamics may creep. Making the implicit explicit, especially in terms of consent, can only be a good thing. This is especially true for women given the historical dominance of men in heterosexual relationships, and the perpetuation of this in contemporary society. Really, it is not the non-monogamous format of the relationships that engender this difference, but the necessity for clear communication when several partners are involved. There may, however, be an issue that monogamy is such a pre-formed social institution that there is a greater risk of unspoken rules. As Red Chidgey quotes Tristan Taormino in a previous F-Word post:

“Nonmonogamous folks are constantly engaged in their relationships: they negotiate and establish boundaries, respect them, test them and, yes, even violate them. But the limits are not assumed or set by society; they are consciously chosen.”

I would hasten to add that this is the aim of many people in non-monogamous and indeed monogamous relationships; the ideal rather than that which is consistently attained.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer and non-identified monogamous couplings have often had unspoken rules of UK culture applied to them. Examples include judging the commitment of a relationship by milestones like marriage, and the imposition of stereotypical gender roles. The popularity of lesbian butch and femme caricatures on television soaps demonstrates this; taking what is often a parody of stereotypical male and female roles and broadcasting it as though it were conformity. Despite what is frequently a misreading of gender performance, the public message this sends is that normative roles can be, and are being, rejected, which paves the way for a shift in cultural views of how different genders behave in relationships.

Similarly, polyamorous people might distance themselves from the typical power dynamics of various gender pairings by stepping away from the ‘pair’ as a structure. I believe greater awareness of non-monogamous set-ups would make the deliberate choice to be in a certain kind of relationship more empowering. For example, if monogamy were not the overwhelming ‘default option’, it could be more meaningful to choose it as the form one’s relationship should take. This view has been well argued in the small but growing body of social science research on non-monogamous relationships, including work by Ani Ritchie and Meg Barker which discusses how conversations about polyamory are constrained by the language of a culture dominated by monogamy.

As Holly Combe wrote in her discussion of the internet and non-monogamy:

“In my view, we have everything to gain from questioning monogamy, even if we’re amongst those who practice it. For example, there’s no room for sexist double standards on cheating when the habitual cheater of either gender is encouraged to take an honest look at themselves, consider that monogamy may not be for them and then seek out partners who want freedom from monogamy as much as they do.”

I personally do not see my own move away from monogamy as a break for freedom, and indeed I know plenty of couples whose monogamous relationships have brought them great freedom. However, I do believe in the creation of more options in relationships and the benefits of explicit communication and negotiation. Is this something that the polyamorous community in particular can contribute to UK culture surrounding relationships? I certainly think so.