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.