Polyamory: we’re not doing it wrong

I’m 25, and I identify as polyamorous. It’s an important identity for me because it helps me deconstruct and contextualize the relationships I’ve had in the past, and acknowledge the relationships that I currently have. A recent title by Julie Bindel, “Rebranding polyamory does women no favors”, caught my attention. It was a well informed piece that successfully conveyed Bindel’s skepticism with the practice’s newfound popularity. But as  a young person, among other things, I had some serious issues.

Bindel makes her point early on when she asserts:

“…the co-opting and rebranding of polygamy, so that it loses its nasty association with the oppression of the most disadvantaged women, is as irresponsible as suggesting that because some women chose to enter high-end prostitution as a social experiment, all prostitution is radical and harmless.”

For the sake of time, I’m not going to address the shade she served sex workers by suggesting that those who do not work under dangerous circumstances are simply “experimenting” as opposed to making a living. But I did find this shade foreboding.

First thing’s first, polyamory isn’t being re-branded, not has it attained much popularity. Trust me. The practice is being introduced to a mainstream culture that is very invested in a monogamous, nuclear, patriarchal family model. It is extremely problematic that recent American exposure to polyamory has been limited to shows like  Big Love at best–which represents religious fundamentalist polygamy– and cheesy dating competition shows (think VH1’s I Love New York or The Bachelorette), at the very worst. The collective ideology maintains that people in non-monogamous relationships are curious “others.” Among my communities–mostly young people of color–the idea of being in polyamorous relationships is ludicrous. Bindel’s reminder that polyamory is primarily practiced by “overwhelmingly white, affluent, university educated and privileged folk” is on point.

But people sharing personal stories about healthy, happy, polyamorous relationships are not irresponsibly re-branding the practice. If anything, they are attempting to change the discourse about relationships so that they are represented when people talk about families and love.

Bindel used a large chunk of her piece to remind us that pro-polygamy legislation often supports patriarchy; and that the roots of Western polyamory lie with lesbian women of the 70’s who attempted to escape harmful relationships and “challenge patriarchal heterosexuality.” Her emphasis on the fact that men were not involved in these relationships seems to imply that women can not escape patriarchy in opposite sex relationships, monogamous or otherwise. I don’t buy it. I know and believe in men who are great allies to women in the fight against patriarchy, and some of them are great fucking lovers!

Polyamory is all about defining your own relationship(s). So I would have liked to see some acknowledgement that women can set boundaries and shape the dynamics of their relationships (this is not to suggest by any means that women in abusive or oppressive relationships simply didn’t do a good enough job of “setting boundaries”). Furthermore, it is equally important to recognize that the factors that contribute to unhealthy/harmful relationships, especially those that perpetuate patriarchy, are not limited to polyamorous relationships.

The claim that polyamory is “an invention of a set of too-cool-for-school hipsters, who have recently discovered that exclusive couple-type relationships are so last season” reeks of ageism and conjurs harmful stereotypes of second wave feminist “finger wagging” and “you young folks don’t know your history” rhetoric. I’m not here for it. While an understanding and critique of patriarchy within intimate relationships has been, and will always be important, the tone of Bindel’s piece wipes away the possibility that young folks are capable (or willing) to engage in such an analysis. It also erases the fact that young people are more than capable of having healthy polyamorous relationships when they have the education and resources to do so.

Feministing's resident "sexpert", Sesali is a published writer and professional shit talker. She is a queer Black girl, fat girl, and trainer. She was the former Training Director at the United States Student Association and later a member of the Youth Organizing team at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She received her bachelors in Women's and Gender Studies from Depaul University in 2012 and is currently pursuing a master's in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. A self identified "trap" feminist, and trained with a reproductive justice background, her interests include the intersections of feminism and: pop culture, youth culture, social media, hip hop, girlhood, sexuality, race, gender, and Beyonce. Sesali joined the team in 2010 as one of the winners of our So You Think You Can Blog contest.

is Feministing's resident sexpert and cynic.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/pilcrows/ Wendy

    You are spot on about the ageism! And also the gender essentialized gate keeping of feminism that is so unfortunately common to white/western ’70s radical feminism. Pretending that the patriarchy is better combatted because there aren’t men involved straight up ignores the fact that women are complicit in the patriarchy too. I’ve seen shitty patriarchal dynamics play out in poly circles where women date only other women and have personally been abused/assaulted by more poly women than poly men.

    Also Bindel’s claim that non-patriarchal nonmonogamy was “invented” by radical feminists in the ’70 completely whitewashes and erases the nonmonogamous history of so many people/cultures.

  • http://feministing.com/members/marlene/ Marlene

    Julie Bindel is full of shit. Always has been. Probably always will be.

    I think the biggest current barrier to moving feminist discourse and ideology forward is this endless game of arguing with trolls like Bindel. How does this notion that the feminist sex wars of the early 1980s aren’t over even gain credence enough to be a discussion?

    Does every generation really need to do the heavy lifting of re-inventing feminism starting in the 1960s? Can’t we, at some point, move forward and continue NEW work.

    Sesali, I’m most definitely not complaining about what you wrote, just the circumstances that prompted it.

  • indigestation

    “The modern proponents of polyamory tend to ignore gender dynamics as if patriarchy and the sexual inequality that it produces has disappeared.”

    It has been my experience that it is precisely because of patriarchal gender dynamics that most poly women choose to be poly. Bucking off the social prescription that sets up limited nuclear family structure with male as center is what poly is all about, for me anyway. Bindel talks like polygamy is being rebranded and polyamory. Maybe this is happening in some social spheres but in mine it could not be further from reality. Polyamory and polygamy could not be more different. My poly and the poly relationships I see around me are about individuals reconceptualizing what love, family, and partnership means to them once they have stripped away as much of the patriarchal, gender essentialism as possible. It is about authenticity and autonomy, being able to define my own sexual/partnering preferences with full awareness of the way in which these misogynistic cultural ideals play out both in my own life and in my community. The factors Bindel says are ignored are the same factors that I find to be the core of poly identity.

  • http://feministing.com/members/tianadiezja/ Tia Dienst-Philipson

    Polyamory – like feminism – is about freedom. It’s about people having the right to define their relationships, their lives, their families, their happiness, as they see fit.

    I am, myself, a poly woman. And the fact that there are those in the feminist community who see modern, sensible polyamory as the enemy baffles and angers me. I want to have my family recognized by law, and feminists should be my allies in that.

  • http://feministing.com/members/blondeintokyo/ Heidi

    Why is it that so many people don’t seem to understand that polyamory and polygamy are two completely different and utterly unrelated things? The author of the Guardian article uses both terms interchangeably, and the author of this blog post doesn’t even attempt to correct this mistake. Nothing irritates me more than people who are ignorant yet speak as if they are some sort of authority on the subject.