It all happened at OpenCon 2011 (a three-day residential unconference in the UK for people who are interested in or have experience with non-monogamy). Participants in a series of two workshops, ‘Feminism and non-monogamy’ and ‘The polyfeminist manifesto’, attempted to answer four key questions about feminism and non-monogamy:
Which feminist ideas and values are relevant to non-monogamy?
Do our poly communities (meaning anything from a poly family to a national community) hold these values?
Recognising the difference between ideals and practice, do our poly communities practice these values?
What can we do to promote these values and ideas within our poly communities and to cross the gap between ideals and practice?
Included below are the answers the workshop participants came up with. Where relevant, answers have been collated, and all answers are anonymised.
Then, we presented a manifesto which sets out one way in which these ideas might be achieved.
About the group
Both workshops were attended by around 10 people, with an overlap between the two groups. We consisted of mostly feminists with some feminist allies and people sympathetic to feminism, all of us practicing or interested in various forms of non-monogamy.
There were people of a mixture of sexualities, ethnicities, experiences of disability, positions on the cis/trans* spectrum, ages and class backgrounds, but with a skew towards white, currently non-disabled and cissexual 20-something women.
The material primarily came from the experiences of those in the workshops. As a result, much of the discussion was about how sexism is experienced by people with a number of other privileges, and there is certainly a lot of experience missing.
In particular, we talk a lot about abuse. Abuse is typically enabled by systems of domination, and because the system of domination we were discussing was sexism, we primarily talked about the abuse of women by men. Other forms of abuse enabled by other systems of domination, such as cis-on-trans* abuse, and abuse occurring outside of widely recognised systems of domination, are also critically important.
In the end, the manifesto was written online after the event and circulated over a mailing list of people who’d been at the workshops. There was less participation online than there had been in the workshops, and so the manifesto should be taken as one possible viewpoint on how to implement the group’s ideas rather than a definitive statement.
Many group members felt comfortable signing the manifesto and have done so below. One male group member was uncomfortable signing the manifesto as he did not feel it was sufficiently inclusive of men, though he did indicate a willingness to engage with some of the work which might come out of it.
We hope that this piece will be a continuation, not the end, of attempts to integrate feminist principles at a basic level with non-monogamous community values. We hope it may also be useful in a wider context, as many of these problems are certainly not specific to non-monogamy.
A note on language
Here we talk frequently about men and women. People come in an infinite variety of genders, but in a patriarchy, some people are identified by the society around them as ‘men’ and given certain privileges over those the society identifies as ‘women’.
Some of these people may be neither men nor women, or they may be both, but the social power relations between them can still have strongly gendered qualities.
Some individuals within our communities are politically active in anti-oppression movements, but they don’t tend to be the people who exercise power in those communities
When we use ‘men’ here we are talking about people who typically receive the social privileges of maleness, and when we use ‘women’ we are talking about people who typically are the recipients of misogyny. It still may be that some people won’t fit into either of those descriptions; in that case, we may be talking about dynamics which don’t affect them as much.
Which feminist ideas and values are relevant to non-monogamy?
This question received the widest variety of answers, and as such we haven’t attempted to synthesise them into one narrative but have presented them with minimal editing. There was some discussion on several of these points, but I’ve included every point which was raised so that the reader can see the variety of opinion present in the workshop.
There is a societal view that femininity is inferior to masculinity
Men have held power in our society up to and including the present day
Gendered power imbalances exist in society
The freedom of women to make their own choices is limited by these power imbalances
Women are pushed into gendered roles from a young age
Women routinely experience regular small acts of aggression or exclusion in their daily lives
There is a difference between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome: if women appear to have the same opportunities as men, but are widely discriminated against while trying to take up those opportunities, it shouldn’t be surprising that the outcome is not equal
Gender is a significant factor in relationships and is something we should pay attention to
We want to break down hierarchies in our relationships: we reject control over partners, including financial control
We value non-possessiveness in our relationships
Consent is sexy!
Gender stereotypes hurt people of all genders, though to differing degrees
Do our poly communities hold these values?
We agreed that the feminist values above are also poly values, or at least should be. But our communities are, as one participant put it, “curiously non-feminist”.
Our communities often describe themselves as ‘apolitical’ and reject discussions of gendered power dynamics as being an unwanted, ‘overly political’ activity. Some individuals within our communities are politically active in anti-oppression movements, but they don’t tend to be the people who exercise power in those communities.
Perpetrators are rarely challenged directly and even between ourselves abuse is often minimised or dismissed
Our communities are often more diverse than mainstream communities, but not as diverse as they could or should be, for example along the axes of age, money, race and gender.
Many of the individuals with more social capital in our communities are financially comfortable men in their 30s and 40s.
Perhaps one reason for some of these diversity issues is the flat pricing structure of some poly community events. While those events appear to be offering equality of opportunity by charging a flat fee, many marginalised people have less money, and so this doesn’t lead to an equality of outcome. Even for events offering scaling fees, the lowest fees are relatively high.
Do our poly communities practice these values?
Poly as an idea can be feminist. Many people in our communities are not. Although non-feminism isn’t always actively malicious, when sexism is a social norm, not being sexist needs active work which many people are unwilling to put in.
There is a lot of talk about using or rejecting labels such as ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ partners (where ‘primary’ often indicates long-term committed partnerships and ‘secondary’ often indicates relationships involving less mutual or time commitment). But semantics aside, actual hierarchies often exist in which it is effectively clear who in a relationship is primary and who is secondary.
Secondaries are frequently screwed over, often most of all in situations where the people involved specifically describe themselves as not operating a hierarchical relationship.
Because, in theory, no power relations exist within the relationship, it can be hard to identify and negotiate around the actual power relations that exist and emerge.
We felt that in a society where it was common for men to have multiple sexual relationships, for example affairs, non-monogamous communities in which many women have multiple relationships are in some ways fundamentally more egalitarian. However, we noted the common trope of the male, well-established community figure who has many female partners, and wondered if, even in a community where number of partners doesn’t seem to correlate to gender, whether there can still be power imbalances when we look at which men are forming relationships with which women, and how.
However, our facilitator noted: “I hope I’m correctly capturing the understanding of the group when I note that, of course women have agency and form relationships based on their needs and wants, as well as men. But there is pressure on that agency and it’s the cumulative effect of that pressure which we were discussing.”
We like to say that we value consent, but many people still behave non-consensually, and a minority of people in our communities are recognised as predatory even by those who don’t know much about the dynamics of abuse. It is not the responsibility of survivors of abuse to address non-consensual behaviour in any community, and yet survivors sometimes appear to be the only people talking about it.
Abusive behaviour is rarely (if ever) discussed publicly and although women often talk about it among ourselves, the perpetrators are rarely challenged directly and even between ourselves it’s often minimised or dismissed.
We recognised that people of all genders can be survivors of abuse (although numerically it is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men against women) but also that talking between ourselves about abuse is a cultural practice typically occurring between women.
Running a workshop can give people lower down the privilege hierarchies in our communities a chance to build more social capital – and they’re great fun
This can create a dangerous environment for people new to the community, who have not yet received the word-of-mouth warnings about who to avoid or be wary of.
“People new to a community are often vulnerable to tactics from abusers such as the implication that various kinds of abusive treatment are normal in polyamorous relationships,” the facilitator added, “and that if they were ‘properly poly’ they wouldn’t object to the abuse.”
The group talked about ways of addressing predatory behaviour and abuse. We discussed several strategies:
Private approach: letting someone know privately their behaviour is inappropriate, or asking organisers to do so
Public disclosure: speaking up publicly about somebody’s inappropriate behaviour
Community accountability: asking somebody to hold themselves accountable for abusive behaviour and to follow a path of self-improvement with help from allies
External intervention: involving external authorities, such as the police
We spoke about how individuals sometimes make private approaches and very rarely look for external intervention, but that public disclosure and community accountability are almost completely absent. Where individuals have spoken up in public, our communities haven’t tended to support them and often turn against them.
What can we do to promote feminist values and their practice?
As a group we came up with several ideas to improve our community:
Create more opportunities for people – hopefully including many women – to run community skill-sharing workshops.
For many women, this is a comfortable space in which to gain more experience with leadership roles.
These raise the profile of the women who run the workshops, and build the confidence and skills of everyone who joins in. In general, they give people lower down the privilege hierarchies in our communities a chance to build more social capital and they’re great fun.
Teach people more about consensual behaviour.
Create and nurture an understanding of what it looks like to put pressure on consent, how to flirt without doing this, how to say ‘no’ even under pressure, how to receive a ‘no’ without putting pressure on the person who is stating it, and how, by doing all these, to carve out spaces in which ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are respected equally – sometimes it’s difficult to find the space to say ‘yes’ when constantly being asked, “What about now? Now?!”
As many options as possible should be made available at all times to survivors of abuse, and it is their decision, not the community’s, which options they choose
This isn’t just about men putting pressure on women’s consent, but there are definitely many men who need to do a lot of learning in this area. Some already organise men-only groups to deconstruct masculinity, male privilege and male predatory behaviour. Some of the workshop participants were uncertain about men-only groups and stated that any groups like this must have clear feminist principles to avoid them becoming “one more boys’ club”.
We talked about the necessity for more bystanders to call out predatory and abusive behaviours when they see them. This may mean speaking privately to the perpetrator, speaking to organisers, offering support to the person experiencing the behaviour or speaking up publicly if that person has given their consent.
Making new options available besides external intervention should never, ever be used as a way to persuade somebody that they must not contact the police. As many options as possible should be made available at all times to survivors of abuse, and it is their decision, not the community’s, which options they choose to follow.
Though involving external forces might be seen by some to harm the image of our communities, what harms them more is taking away the choices of abuse survivors who have already experienced their choices being taken away as part of a pattern of abuse.
It must be acknowledged that there is a misogynist power imbalance in our communities. Conversations about this must be a regular part of our community activity.
It must be acknowledged that there is predatory and abusive behaviour in our communities, and that a large amount of this is perpetrated by men upon women, though other dynamics exist.
Men must take responsibility for their predatory and abusive behaviour. Men who feel that they are not acting in a predatory way must challenge themselves to better understand dynamics of consent and abuse; men who are addressing their own predatory behaviour must help other men do the same, and men who are perpetrating this behaviour must stop. This demand applies to all abusers but we recognise the reality of systematic male-on-female predation and abuse and our demands begin with that system.
Bystanders must take some responsibility for predatory and abusive behaviour. This behaviour often occurs with their implicit consent and if they actively withdraw this consent, they can help to stop it. Whenever they do confront this behaviour they must put the needs of the people experiencing the behaviour first.
There must be an active and continuing effort to spread power from men to women in our communities; opportunities such as skill-sharing workshops or other alternatives must always be available for women to build social capital and leadership skills.