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

by Tracey Plowman // 14 April 2011, 20:28

Tags: gender roles, media, monogamy, Polyamory, relationships

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.

Comments From You

Olivia // Posted 14 April 2011 at 21:17

"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."

I don't think that presenting butch or femme people's gender expressions as 'parodies of stereotypical roles' as you've done is any more representative of people's experiences than presenting them as 'conformity'. Some (possibly most, I haven't done a survey) people just *are* butch, or *are* femme. They are not 'performing' their genders anymore than anybody else.

Also, as a femme who has had numerous experiences of being treated in very heterocentric, chauvanistic ways within butch-femme communities I find it really upsetting when the butches (and trans men who still access butch-femme spaces) who behave like this are essentially let off the hook when it comes to this sort of stereotypical, 1950s misogyny toward anybody in a skirt.

It's not subversive, its not a clever performance, and it *is* conformist, in that it buys into and supports a long standing, devaluing of femininity which stretches across both queer and straight cultures.

Hayley Mary // Posted 15 April 2011 at 10:31

I understand this article was not at all intended to be the answer to the entire feminist mission and of course agree we need to question all elements of the 'normal' relationship structure. However, what is really being suggested here is that the potential of nonmonogous relationships to free those who practice them from the confines of the dominant hetero-centrism lies not in the their being polyamorous, but in their being nonconventional. Theoretically, if nonmonogamy was indeed promoted and accepted to the point of becoming the norm, it would surely take on as many socially defined characteristics as monogamy has today. 
Is it actually the case that there is something inherent in monogamy that lends itself to becoming a tool of oppression, which needs to be broken down?
One could easily argue, I'm sure it has been done, that monogamy is beneficial for females and oppressive to males in some cases. My point is really that it is not necessarily the specific nature or structure of relationship type that makes it an obstacle to feminism, but whether or not it is part of a socially shaped norm. Further, the question is whether to promote nonmonogamy as a liberating form of relationship, which, in truth, is alienating to many women, or whether to simply promote nonconventional relationships, including but not limited to nonmonogamy. 

Cas // Posted 15 April 2011 at 14:29

I like your points that mindfulness wrt. relationships is a valued ideal in many non-monogamous relationship models, and that mindfulness leads to more opportunities to challenge oppressive dynamics.

I also feel like that heterosexual monogamy has a problem in that it isolates people into pairs, each one of which contains a man and a woman. Of course not all of those relationships enact patriarchy on a one-to-one basis, but I feel like many of them do.

It kind of ensures that each woman is given her own keeper, at least potentially, and many women must fight the patriarchy twice, once in the home and once outside it.

Anything which breaks down that isolation is good. More closely-knit communities would be one way; more communal living, another; and non-monogamous practices another...

Delilah // Posted 16 April 2011 at 05:40

I am in a non monogamous/poly relationship & the language is one thing I find the extemely challenging! There are so few descriptors for my life that make sense outside the community! Monogamy is the overwhelming norm that it permeates the language to such a degree that even explaining my life is difficult!

I was excited to see this post on the fword!

Louise // Posted 18 April 2011 at 16:08

I don't really see how poly relationships move away from having to fight the patriarchy twice. Surely, the dynamic could just as easily end up with one woman having two "keepers" or a keeper having two kept women. It's the hetero nature of the relationship that opens up this possibility rather than monogamy.

An increase in poly relationships would certainly change the sociology of relationships. It remains to be seen whether it would result in monogamy becoming more meaningful because chosen. I think the problem with this is that the choice is likely to be driven by culture and asymmetry in numbers of people wanting a particular type of relationship, rather than what people's actual choices would be if they could choose.

Intuitively, it does seem more likely that women will be pressured into having poly relationships because they can't get the monogamous commitment that they want, and the alternative is no relationship at all. This isn't a reason for stigmatising people into monogamy, but it does make me wonder how it's possible to deal with it.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 19 April 2011 at 19:09

Given that the popularity of polygamy in other cultures is frequently associated with women having a lack of power within their marital relationships, I don't think that 'poly' can be easily equated with patriarchy-free. Like the other commentators, I agree that this is more about being conscientious about the power dynamics of your relationship (whether with one person or many).

I think that the increased acceptance of poly relationships within monogamous cultures has the power to challenge heteronormativity and so open up choice in how we form intimate relationships- but this is perhaps a slightly different issue from the discussion of how power lies within the relationships themselves. (So for example, we could have highly-patriarchal cultures that accept both monogamy and polygamy, but have little regard for the rights of women within those relationships). Increasing choice does not necessarily meaning increasing rights for women.

Cas // Posted 19 April 2011 at 22:57

@Louise, Avatar:

I thought about what you said, and now I think you're completely right. I think it's more that the only polyamory I've ever experienced is feminist polyamory.

I'm embarrassed at the cultural privilege that led me to forget about existing implementations of multi-partner relationships elsewhere in the world.

Thank you for taking the time to comment and set me straight!

Clare // Posted 03 May 2011 at 22:22

As a woman in a monogamous relationship with a man who has previously preferred polyamorous relationships has been something I have been thinking long and hard about.

I have been with my partner for over 2 years now, however throughout the relationship we have often had discussions about polyamory and if it would work in our relationship. Especially as I had only even come across the term in passing, although I am familiar with "polygamy" in the context of certain religious communities, usually where a man takes on several wives. This would not be a relationship structure I would wish to emulate.

Personally for me I do not feel I would be able to have a polyamorous relationship, myself, due to time constraints! I have no idea where I would fit another partner! Also I have thought a lot about how I would feel were he to take on another partner, especially as in his case this would be another female partner.

In myself, I think I would almost see his need to take on another partner as a sign that I am not adequate or sufficient enough for him, which is not a view I want to take of myself. However, one advantage to him being open about his feelings from the beginning of the relationship is that this has been the first relationship I have been in where I have very little fear of him cheating on me in any way. Rather than making me worry about him wanting another partner, I find myself comforted that if he did have feelings for another woman we would be able to discuss his feelings rationally and with less upset prior to the feelings being acted upon.

Now, having voiced my thoughts on the subject, and read the thoughts of others, I think I am even less sure if I feel conventional acceptance of polyamorous relationships would be beneficial or detrimental to improving equality in our society.

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