Questioning the boundaries of love and lust.

// 15 September 2009

“I believe in trying to break down power hierarchies in society, and that means breaking them down in my personal life as well,” he says. “If I wish to try to allow others to be free, why would I want to control the people I love and care most about?”

Owen Briggs is a political poly, someone who engages in polyamory: having relationships with more than one person at once. He is quoted in this thoughtful piece in The Independent on Sunday about the development of polyamory in the UK.

And I think he has a point.

We are socialised into believing that engaging in sexual activity or developing romantic attachments to someone other than the partner we are already with is the deepest possible betrayal of that person. It’s ‘cheating’. For the most part, when we start a new relationship, it goes without saying that we have now ‘committed’ ourselves to that person, that we will not get up to any sexual mischief with anyone else, and should we be drawn to another person, we will do all we can to fight off those feelings and remain ‘loyal’. But no one ever seems to stop and ask why.

Is there actually anything essentially wrong with kissing someone else? With having sex with someone else? Most people, of my age at least, no longer view sex as some kind of sacred act between two people who love each other and have made the commitment to be with each other for the rest of their lives; many of us engage in recreational sex with no deeper meaning than a desire to get ourselves and each other off. So why should engaging in this kind of activity with someone who isn’t your partner be any more hurtful to said partner than playing tennis or going for a meal with someone else? Why should we prevent the people we love from essentially just having a good time?

Equally, why should we prevent someone we view as a wonderful, loving, caring, valuable person extending that loving attitude to others? Loving another person does not necessarily reduce the love one has for one’s original partner; we’re perfectly capable of building and maintaining a number of separate relationships with our friends, so why not with our lovers?

There are probably as many answers to those questions as there are people – personally I don’t know that I’ve got sufficient time management skills and self confidence to be in a poly relationship! – but what I want to suggest is that more of us need to start considering these questions if we want to build truly egalitarian relationships. It seems to me that the presumptions we make about appropriate sexual and emotional conduct within relationships are strongly rooted in patriarchal notions of possession, control and sex, and that the jealousy many of us experience is linked to these and can be overcome, should we have the will and determination to do so. By talking about these issues with our partners, we can enter into and build a relationship / relationships on our own terms rather than those set out by a society which has historically oppressed women by controlling our sexual expression.

And whatever conclusions we come to – be it that we are happy for our partner to have casual sex with others, that we want to love and lust after each other exclusively, or that we want to engage in multiple loving relationships – we can better respect each other’s freedom and personal boundaries and perhaps eliminate some of that pain and heartbreak that occurs when society’s unwritten terms of sexual and emotional engagement are broken.

Comments From You

shreen // Posted 15 September 2009 at 6:07 pm

(This is in response to the blog post, not the article)

This is really simple: you do what YOU prefer.

If you prefer monogamy – go for it!

Polygamy your thing – cool!

Being chaste / being promiscious / or a flexible combination of the two – no problem!

As long as it’s consensual, between adults, and does not harm anyone involved (easier said than done I know, but hypothetically speaking) then what is the harm exactly?

I am puzzled about this comment…

“It seems to me that the presumptions we make about appropriate sexual and emotional conduct within relationships are strongly rooted in patriarchal notions of possession, control and sex, and that the jealousy many of us experience is linked to these and can be overcome, should we have the will and determination to do so.”

What if I *enjoy* being monogamous? What if I am open minded enough to accept polygamous people in my life, but do not want to partake in it? It is the same as questioning why a feminist would ever want to wear make-up, wear a dress, or shave her legs, for she is playing her own part in her oppression, right? Maybe, or maybe not. Maybe she is intelligent enough to make her own decisions.

I’m sorry, but questioning my lifestyle because it may have some ridiculously tenuous link to patriarchy is ridiculous. Do you challenge my decision to wear a skirt? Nope. So why this? Are you suggesting that we all become polygamists because that lifestyle better suits the ideals of a feminist? I really doubt this is what you are saying, but it comes across as such.

“By talking about these issues with our partners, we can enter into and build a relationship / relationships on our own terms rather than those set out by a society which has historically oppressed women by controlling our sexual expression.”

I’m completely comfortable with women being promiscuous, but did it not occur to you that being monogamous IS ‘my own terms’ ? I thought it was obvious that just because a certain choice in life aligns with historical/modern connections to sexism (marriage perhaps, sex work, beauty pageants) does not mean that the person’s choice is inherently wrong or sexist.

Perhaps you were referring to the relationships that exist in the grey area between mono- and polygamy? That would make a lot more sense, but was not clear in the blog post.

Lesley // Posted 15 September 2009 at 6:11 pm

No of course there is nothing wrong with having an open relationship with a partner as long as you have both agreed this. However I am not sure that it is just a patriarchial society that makes us jealous.

I would hate it if my girlfriend slept with anyone else and would be very jealous. I have no problem with her lusting after anyone else, and I don’t feel I own her, but I do see sex as reserved for our relationship together.

A Different Helen // Posted 15 September 2009 at 6:25 pm

I dont feel very comfortable with this poly-amory idea. Sexual jealousy is one of the most powerful human emotons there is, and I dont think it can be waved away with logic or idealism. It also strikes me as a convenient excuse for philanderers to shirk their responsibilites. I can see it might appeal to the young, free and single, but when you are stuck at home with small children and your partner has far more opportunities to form alternative sexual relationships than you, I bet the idea will rapidly lose its appeal.

Laura // Posted 15 September 2009 at 7:16 pm

Hi Shreen,

I wasn’t suggesting that there’s anything wrong with monogamy, rather that instead of just presuming monogamy at the outset of a relationship, we actively talk these issues through and come to a mutual decision. This is what I meant by ensuring a relationship is on ‘one’s own terms’. Deciding on full monogamy is of course just as valid a choice as anything else.

I didn’t want to write too much about my own situation, but suffice to say my partner does not share my (somewhat tentative) view on sexual activities with others not necessarily constituting a betrayal or being wrong, so I respect his tighter boundaries and we are monogamous, so I’m definitely not hating on monogamy.

As for jealousy, I have no set ideas on whether it is a ‘natural’ or inevitable feeling, but I do think it is reinforced by the generally accepted wisdom that having sex with someone outside of your relationship is essentially wrong and for me I feel it is positive to try and tackle jealous feelings in order to challenge the idea that we own or possess our partners. I’m not suggesting everyone has to do that, it’s just something to think about :-)

Mhairi // Posted 15 September 2009 at 8:03 pm

Hmm. I can see your point about social controls and there may well be historic issues around child-rearing, inheritance and control of female sexuality in distinction to freer rein for men. But I suspect underlying it all are issues of biology and holding onto our mates for procreation. I’m all for rebelling against biology’s tyranny where necessary but in this instance, my general suspicion regarding open relationships, swinging and any other ‘polyamorous’ arrangement is that one partner is always more into it than the other. And both are always far more chuffed with the idea of retaining their own sexual freedom than watching their loved one frolic off with another.

However, I am well aware that my conviction that sexual jealousy, as Helen says, is one of the most powerful human emotions we have, is likely rooted in the fact I would personally tear my boy limb from limb, together with anyone he might be coupled with at the time (ahem!) Not because I own him or want to control his natural desire but because I really couldn’t bear it and he would have known this.

But I realise others may not feel quite this way and so it fundamentally comes down to emotional honesty and both partners being on the same page regarding the level of monogamy/ polyamory they’re happy with. I just can’t believe anyone who claims to be fine with someone they’re really in love with bed-hopping: it it doesn’t hurt, you’re not that into them.

shreen // Posted 15 September 2009 at 8:18 pm

It is unfortunate for those who want non-monogamous relationships, that the standard is the exact opposite of what they want.

As you say, the particulars of each relationship should be discussed at some early stage. It is a shame there is a disparity in your relationship Laura, but I find it hard to believe we can change people’s sexual desires for political benefit. Polygamy isn’t right for a lot of people, but even amongst people who feel sick at the thought of it, I think there is a lot more acceptance that you would believe.

Ideally, I think relationships should never be blindly assumed to be anything: mono/poly/whatever – this would facilitate conversation about what the ‘terms and conditions’ are of each individual case. Perhaps this was what you were calling for?

Laura // Posted 15 September 2009 at 8:53 pm

Ideally, I think relationships should never be blindly assumed to be anything: mono/poly/whatever – this would facilitate conversation about what the ‘terms and conditions’ are of each individual case.

Agreed, shreen.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 15 September 2009 at 11:35 pm

I find it entirely fascinating just how much we want hang on to sexual desire as a ‘natural’ attribute, as opposed to a social construct.

I mean if you see the way people discussed gender, race, class etc (and the power inequalities caused by them) a couple of hundred years ago, you would see just how ‘natural’ and inevitable the status quo felt to them- it was just seen in nature, part of who we were.

And, now we discuss sexual desire in much the same way.

I think there needs to much greater political deconstruction of sexual desire and its role in society (which of course this post goes someway towards initiating).

wings // Posted 16 September 2009 at 12:18 am

I’m just throwing an opinion without doing a lot of research…

First, I do think should be allowed to do whatever they want in their private life as long as it happens between 2 consenting adults with legal competence.

Second, everyone should try almost everything in order to see what they like and what is compatible with them.

That being said, after reading the article, personally I don’t think there is neither love nor lust. I think it’s somewhere between being afraid of really getting hurt, afraid of real commitment and the need for affection. Everybody is free to contradict me, but this is my personnel opinion. There may not be the case at all.

It depends on your personnel definition of the two. One comment on the article said that, in more words, cuddling on the sofa is love. For me it’s not, this maybe affection, routine, whatever you can call it, but not love.

I don’t see it as lust either.It goes in many cases beyond pure lust.

As this is the first time I get a better understanding of polyamory, i have a question: are the relationships supposed to be at an equal level?

Because from what I’ve seen, this is not apparent. Some of them talk about equality of relationships and others of dominant relationships, in some cases giving the impression of an excuse to cheat without actually cheating. In those cases it sounds more like:”look, baby, I ain’t cheating, I’m just being incredible progressive”.

When it comes to love and, sometimes, even lust, I think you either do them both wholeheartedly or it’s just some fun time, not being actually neither of the two. Or, who knows, maybe that is the key! The lightness and lack of overpowering feelings.(I’m not being sarcastic here)

Charlie // Posted 16 September 2009 at 12:25 am

Poking my nose in for team poly :)

A Different Helen:

Yep, damn right sexual jealousy is a big part of our nature. When I had a live in, commited, partner it was discussed a few times. Seeing him playing with other women was unpleasant, and the same for him watching me with other men or women. But neither of us owned the other and we made the concious descision to not restrict the other one. There were some rules there to make sure no one got overly upset at any point and occasionally one of us would mark a certain person as off limits (usually agreed upon and always with good reason), but for the most part it was a case of don’t like don’t watch…

It works, it takes huge amounts of communication and effort. I don’t how polyamory works when children are involved, all of my poly friends in stable relationships are either anti-children or haven’t gotten there yet, but I’d say its the exact same way it works before kids. Communication, setting boundaries. I find it extremely doubtful that anyone I know in a poly relationship would end up in the situation you describe, just due to the nature of the people themsleves.

On the stable relationships bit, with exception of myself (currently single), the majority of my poly friends are also in long term relationships. You know the sort, married, buying houses together, planning to have kids, joint pet ownership etc. All of my current partners are actually all in commited and stable relationships which, quite frankly, I’m honoured to be welcomed inside of.

It’s all about balance, communication and knowing your heart. Polyamoury isn’t for everyone and monogamy has a lot going for it for a lot of people, but don’t dismiss it out of hand.

As someone who has an intense dislike of having a stable partner I’m beholden to in anyway polygamy works really well for me, especially as the third person in a relationship. I get the affection, love and, yes, sex I want/crave/need without having to give up my otherwise exsistence of solitude, there’s no one sulking because I’m not in the mood, if I say no it’s not an issue, I get to sprwal across my bed without kicking anyone, and I also still get to do the things I really love doing for my partners like sending flowers, cooking meals, showering them with affection and generally being soppy and romantic. About the only change I’ve had to make is getting used to cooking for 3 not 2 frequently. It just works for me perfectly…

And my best friends still wondering how I can bring myself to share. Two people two different ways.

Now telling my parents… lets just say funniest conversation I’ve ever had with the parental units and leave it there.

Daniela Vincenti // Posted 16 September 2009 at 1:24 am

Hi Laura,

Wow, I almost splattered my capuccino on the screen when reading this! Now I see why my sanctimonous whinging on the male eye candy post has not drawn many converts here.

Seriously, you don’t seem to attach much importance to the emotional side of sex and relationships. I mean, do you really believe it is possible to remain happily married for years with both of you engaging in a bit of fun and games on the side when the urge arises? Besides, I’ve heard many things being blamed on the patriarchy but holding them responsible for the propagation of monogamy really takes the biscuit.

Gosh and there’s me thinking I was a liberated woman after sharing some nookie before the wedding bells.

Does anyone else here over 40 think this idea is a bit crazy or should I really lock myself in a convent?

Laura // Posted 16 September 2009 at 9:33 am

Hi Daniela,

Your views are just as relevant as mine or anyone else’s so no need to describe them as sanctimonious whinging!

I don’t think patriarchy is responsible for propagating monogamy, but I do think it has encouraged us to behave possessively towards our partners; after all, a wife was traditionally a man’s property, so I don’t think it’s a huge step to suggest that the huge moral and emotional outrage we are expected to feel when our partner engages in sexual activity with someone else is at least partly linked to the ideas of possession and control.

I do think it’s possible to be happily married and have casual sex with other people on the side, yes.

As for me not attaching much importance the emotional side of sex and relationships, that’s just wrong and a little hurtful to be honest. Believing that it is possible to be polyamorous or engage in sexual activity with others outside of one’s relationship (or have casual sex as a singleton) does not mean I am incapable of having emotional sex or intensely emotional and loving relationships.

JenniferRuth // Posted 16 September 2009 at 9:52 am

I basically agree with everything Shreen said.

I have no problem with people who are engaged in polyamory – more power to you. I like to see people doing what is right for them regardless of social conventions. However, I just don’t think I could do it! For one, with all the protection in the world there is always a risk of disease and pregnancy. I think this would weigh heavy on my mind should my partner be with other women.

Secondly, I don’t think I have it in me to love more than one person at once. It might sound really fucking soppy but I only really have eyes for one person – sure, I find other people sexually attractive but I don’t think I could fall for them whilst I am in love with someone else (actually, I feel pretty certain about that, but I don’t like to deal in absolutes). Closely related to this is that I do not like having sex without love. I’ve tried it, believe me (short term relationships and some disastrous one night stands) and I find it unsatisfying and inconvenient – I’d rather masturbate! However, I do know that this is just a personal preference. I went out there, did my research, and concluded that it wasn’t for me.

I don’t think those that are poly should assume that monogamous couples are just following a patriarchal system based upon marriage and women as property. However, I do think that perhaps there is a point of truth in there. There is a social construct that says all human sexual relationships should me monogamous and this limits people from exploring and discovering what is right for them.

There are as many different relationships as there are people.

sarah // Posted 16 September 2009 at 10:12 am

I just want to throw this out here because I haven’t seen this topic mentioned anywhere in this discussion yet:

I always wondered how much the ideal of monogamy has to do with sexual health. I have done no research on this subject. Over centuries (millenia!) the moralistic idea that sex with multiple partners is wrong and “dirty” has evolved and it may have something to do with the fact that sleeping with lots of different people does greatly enhance the risk of catching STDs. I’m thinking about the time before condoms, before the medical knowledge of how diseases are transmitted existed.

So today of course, we are all responsible adults and should be using proper barrier contraceptives when having sex with multiple partners/changing partners often, but I am not sure that so many people take it that seriously.

I must say though that in regards to polyamory, which is not “cheating” or “sleeping around”, as it were (activities where people are more likely to behave irresponsibly), the people involved are more likely to behave “responsibly” (as it says in the article). I just thought I’d mention the whole idea of STDs as a possible reason for monogamy evolving as an ideal, not just patriarchal sexual jealousy, or at least the two somehow influencing each other.

Amy Clare // Posted 16 September 2009 at 10:48 am

I thought most couples had a conversation along the lines of… “So are we officially a couple then?” when they first started going out, and that this involves saying “Are you seeing / do you want to see anyone else?” Me and my partner had this conversation and agreed that we both wanted to see only each other. Maybe some other couples don’t bother with this and assume monogamy from the outset?

I’m slightly affronted by the implication that monogamy involves ‘ownership’ of the other person. ‘Ownership’ is a very negative word to use and has unpleasant connotations… and it’s not accurate, as the reality is that monogamous couples have usually *decided of their own free will* to commit themselves sexually/emotionally to their partners. Most people are after all free to leave the relationship at any time, if they don’t like the arrangement.

It’s less ownership and more, treat your partner as you would like to be treated yourself. I personally would not want my partner to sleep with anyone else, so if the situation ever arose where I felt attracted to someone else, I would not act on it.

I fully admit I am a jealous person, but this jealousy for me has nothing to do with thinking that I own my partner and wanting to control him. It has to do with having been hurt in the past and being frightened of that hurt happening again. People are complex and there are many reasons for jealousy. My partner on the other hand is not a jealous person, but still wants to be monogamous.

Charlie above mentioned being ‘beholden’ to a partner… well sometimes, shit happens and people need support, and isn’t your partner (if you have one) the first place you look for that? I do wonder how polyamorous relationships would cope with a situation where one partner suddenly became disabled and needed a lot of care, or had a nervous breakdown and needed constant support etc… i.e. situations where flitting off on a whim to spend time with another lover would just not be an option. Relationships aren’t just for good times, are they? Your partner is who you rely on in times of need – you’re there for them, and they’re there for you. What happens when there are other people in that equation?

sianmarie // Posted 16 September 2009 at 11:25 am

as long as no one honestly gets hurt then if polyamory suits you, fine! what you do in bed is your business.

but personally i couldn’t do it, and it isn’t due to ownership of my boyfriend or a disagreement with casual sex but more that the thought of him sleeping with someone else makes me feel physically sick. and although i can see someone on the street and think he/she is hot, the thought of taking that further makes me feel sick too.

but that is just me. and some people don’t feel that way, they can feel as much love as i have to my boyfriend but also feel ok with sleeping with other people. it is not for me to judge them, nor for them to judge me!

still, i don’t think my feelings towards my boyfriend are the result of the patriarchy. it is more my personal preference (and his) for how we conduct ourselves in our relationship, and our own personal feelings.

George // Posted 16 September 2009 at 11:37 am

I don’t think that either polyamory or monogamy will be the ‘feminist choice’. Point is, whatever heterosexual relationship we enter into as women, we will have to fight the effects of patriarchy. Monogamy can involve you becoming the property, arm-candy or house slave of the man in question; polyamory can often descend into one man owning a whole *group* of women. Neither of these systems are going to be perfect, because there is still a massive social imbalance affecting the participants, which dictates what and how and why we act in certain ways.

Therefore, it is important for us to be armed with the correct information and ability to make the correct choices (for ourselves) in order to combat this inequality in whatever personal relationship we choose to engage in. Promiscuous, single, or married for 60 years, we ain’t gonna win unless we fight for it.

Denise // Posted 16 September 2009 at 11:46 am

I agree with Mhairi’s comment that one partner is usually into this (polygamy/polyamoury) more than the other. And it’s usual format seems to be one man with two or more women, which to me is patriarchal and controlling with knobs on! It isn’t selfish to live the way you want, but it damn well is when you try to make someone else live the way you want.

I do believe that sooner or later most people want one special partner to love and trust and who loves them – exclusively. This no way means that they think they own or control each other. They just want to be together and don’t want any other partners. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I would find it totally offensive if anyone thought my husband could/should control me, or me him, or expect us to justify not having other partners.

And to ask why should engaging in ‘this kind of activity’ with someone who isn’t your partner be any more hurtful than playing tennis or going out for a meal with someone else…? Come on, Laura Woodhouse! You usually write great posts, but this gemmie is not your finest hour.

Laura // Posted 16 September 2009 at 12:03 pm


Do you have any specific evidence or examples to back up your assertion that polyamoury is usually one controlling man with more than one woman or that one partner is more into it than another?

I’m not saying that monogamous partners are necessarily controlling one another, just suggesting that perhaps we could think a little more about sexual freedom, whether it really is such a bad or destructive thing and what the accepted norms surrounding fidelity are based on. You feel it’s fine to criticise me for suggesting that engaging in sexual activity with someone else may be no worse than playing tennis or going for a meal with someone, yet you offer no explanation as to why you clearly think it is. The assumption seems to be that it’s just obvious that engaging in sexual activity with someone else is wrong or essentially different to any non-sexual activity, but personally I would prefer to question that assumption and come to my own conclusions rather than just accepting the social norm. I am categorically NOT suggesting that concluding that you’d hate for your partner to have sex with someone else is wrong or unfeminist or not radical or any other kind of negative.

As a general point: I fully respect anyone’s decision to be fully monogamous and I’d really appreciate it if commenters could try and respect my views here too, rather than just scoffing at them or implying I am crazy. I haven’t actually mentioned what my personal boundaries are, but I’m keen to question the norms and wrote this post in the spirit of encouraging others to think about them too. I have not made any blanket, pseudo-objective statements or negatively judged anyone’s relationship choices and I’m certainly not demanding anyone come out and justify them.

Amy Clare // Posted 16 September 2009 at 12:04 pm

George makes a good point. In countries/cultures where poly relationships are the norm (usually one man, many women), you could argue that this is the result of patriarchy too.

There’s nothing inherently patriarchal about monogamy (what about monogamous gay relationships?) or poly relationships.

Lindsey // Posted 16 September 2009 at 12:05 pm

I’ve talked about this a fair bit with my polyamorous friend and he summed it up in saying “I think it’s really sad that we’re allowed to hate as many people as we like but only love one person.”

I think it’s about finding the medium that works for you. I’m monogamous and live with my partner, but I recognise that although I don’t have sex with other people there are people I love as much as I love my partner. People I’ve been close to for years, people I can turn to and depend on no matter what, do not come second, and I doubt I’m the only one who feels this way.

How do y’all feel this affects the debate? Does it count as polyamory if you don’t have sex?

Kez // Posted 16 September 2009 at 12:40 pm

Owen Briggs says: “If I wish to try to allow others to be free, why would I want to control the people I love and care most about?”

That suggests monogamy is inevitably about control. I don’t agree that is the case… polyamory, or any kind of relationship actually, could equally involve one party imposing their will on another, and can easily involve just as many power hierarchies as anything else (I’ve seen this operate in practice). Surely what matters is that individuals are able to make choices that suit them, not what those choices are.

I choose not to sleep with other people not because my partner has control over me but because fidelity is one of the things both of us value in our relationship, and neither of us want to cause the other one pain. (And also because my life is complicated and exhausting enough!) I am not opposed to poly relationships, but I do think genuine equality is just as hard in that situation as in any other.

Jessica Burton // Posted 16 September 2009 at 12:43 pm

In a similar way that we ask people to read feminism 101, I suggest commentors type “polyamory” in the fword search box as there has been an insightful book review and follow up articles on the subject that will explain terms and ideas.

Polygamy and polyamory are NOT the same for example and many people here are confusing the two in their comments.

I too am very interested in polyamory and as Lindsey says above, does it count if you don’t have sex? I think it can.

The issue we are exploring is *why* is sexual contact the ultimate marker of fidelity? We all have more than one intimate/intense love relationship with more than one person. We all love our best friends, our family. But current societal norms say that those people are not entitled to physical affection from us beyond hugs/cheek kisses.

Why is this?

Why are we conditioned to be insanely jealous over sexual contact outside of our one and only partner?

I believe there is a huge gulf between the people we love such as our oldest friends on one hand who essentially we are not allowed to touch (exaggerating but you get the point) and a partner we have known for six months but we are in a relationship with who is allowed full physical and sexual contact of every kind.

Is it time to explore the space in between? I think so.

I think polyamory is *one* way to go about it.

Denise // Posted 16 September 2009 at 12:51 pm

Hi Laura,

I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sound disrespectful of you. I didn’t ‘assert’ that polygamy/polyamory is a one man several women thing, I actually said it ‘usually seems to be’. Do I have any specific examples? Well, two (female) friends of mine are in a long term polyamory situation with one guy. Each of them both basically hope that one day he’ll make a choice! I also used to know someone else who was living with a guy who had a few girlfriends. He loved talking about sexual freedom. She left in the end because she got too unhappy. And guess what happens then? He’s jealous when she finds someone else!

As to ‘evidence’, well, if you’ll just bear with me while I comb through the last two thousand-odd years of patriarchy…!

I didn’t mean to scoff at your views and I’m no way implying you are crazy. I completely agree that everybody should have the kind of sexual relationship they want – as long as it really IS free and consensual. Human nature being what it is though, I think that’s often not the case. Maybe I could have put that better.

Your actual words in your post are “why should engaging in this kind of activity with someone who isn’t your partner be any more hurtful to said partner than playing tennis or going for a meal with someone else?” I don’t (and didn’t) mean to scoff here, but do I really have to explain why I think that sounds, at the very least, disingenuous?! But okay, I’ll try. Having sex means a lot more to me than playing tennis or going for a meal. It involves much deeper emotional involvement and a whole different range of pleasurable physical sensations. If it wasn’t going to mean any more to me than eating, I don’t think I’d want to bother! And if my husband had sex with someone else it would be a lot bigger deal to me than if he played tennis with the person or went out for a meal with them.

I think most people would get that.

Jess McCabe // Posted 16 September 2009 at 1:23 pm

@Denise And if my husband had sex with someone else it would be a lot bigger deal to me than if he played tennis with the person or went out for a meal with them.

Operative words: it would be a bigger deal “to me”.

I don’t think Laura is suggesting everyone should ditch monogamy, if monogamy works for you, it works for you, go for it. She’s just suggesting that it’s not the option everyone might want to choose, that there *are* other options out there. In our society, the fact is for the most part there is not an option, monogamy is put out there as the one, ideal state of being – not one option among many. All Laura’s post does is suggest that it’s worth asking the question ‘is this really working?’

It’s a complex issue; and sex is a bigger deal than tennis for me too; it’s about emotional and physical connection to me; does have to be with only one person? I don’t think monogamy is the only way – I’ve been in my current relationship for 10 years (started when I was 18). That relationship has changed and evolved over time, as you might imagine, my ideas and feelings were not the same going in as they are now.

I don’t think non-monogamy is inherantly ‘more radical’ or ‘more feminist’. The fact is that we’re in a kyriarchal society 24/7, and sometimes that shows itself in our relationships too, right?

Daniela Vincenti // Posted 16 September 2009 at 1:42 pm

This is developing into a good discussion. On thinking about it further I suppose it is not impossible to make it work. However I feel you would have to be able to compartmentalize your feelings very well and manage to keep a certain detachment. I would compare such an arrangement to walking on a tightrope that can snap at any time. What would happen if you fall in love with one of your other partners and wanted to get monogamous with him? Or if your husband found a girl twenty years younger and you could not control your jealousy? Or you just need him for support and he is on a “honeymoon” with another acquaintance? Whether it is through biological predeterminism or not, men can generally be a bit more selfish and superficial in sexual relationships so I think it might be an easier and more attractive option to them.

Try not to take it too personally Laura. Polyamory is quite a radical suggestion that most people have never really considered, and it does take a bit of a quantum leap in one’s mind to assess it rationally. I’ll be expecting a link to a monogamous person privilege checklist next!

Denise // Posted 16 September 2009 at 1:44 pm

Hi Jess,

Yes, of course the operative words are “to me”. I wasn’t trying to speak for anyone else.

And ‘yes’ to everything else you say. I know Laura isn’t attacking monogamy, and I’m not saying it’s the one, ideal state of being either. I also don’t think that non-monogamy is inherently more feminist or radical. And of course being in a kyriarchal society 24/7 is reflected in our relationships.

I read Laura’s words carefully before I decided to comment. And I’ve read yours. I’ve been polite and I didn’t preach. Pity you both can’t show me the same consideration.

Amy Clare // Posted 16 September 2009 at 1:56 pm

@Jessica Burton:

“We all have more than one intimate/intense love relationship with more than one person. We all love our best friends, our family. But current societal norms say that those people are not entitled to physical affection from us beyond hugs/cheek kisses.

Why is this?”

Well, in the case of family, there are certain laws prohibiting sexual contact, for one. (And with good reason!)

In the case of best friends, well, I’m not sexually attracted to any of my best friends, and I’m sure I’m not the only one! It’s not a case of society disallowing sex between best friends, more that being someone’s best friend and loving that person doesn’t necessarily mean that you are *in love* with them and want to sleep with them.

I also get Denise’s point about sex/tennis. If I had to explain why, well… Our sexual selves are vulnerable as physically, we’re naked… also, our sexual body parts link to the deepest emotional side of our psyches. When we open up to someone sexually, there is an assumption of trust there, and it’s important to feel safe. Tennis, or a meal out, has none of these qualities. You don’t have to trust a person you play tennis with, as there’s very little chance for them to hurt you, but you *do* have to trust someone that you’re in bed naked with. Sexual behaviour with someone involves a lot of risk (physically and emotionally), so when you are sexual with someone, it says something about your connection to them, or how much you like them, that non-sexual activities just don’t say.

Laura // Posted 16 September 2009 at 2:44 pm

Denise, I’m not sure what I’ve said that you deem inconsiderate..?

Franny // Posted 16 September 2009 at 2:47 pm

Good post, Laura. (Except for the bit that’s been mentioned above! Think you slipped up a bit there but hey, we’re all busy people). I think Daniela Vincenti makes a good point when she says that for polyamory to work you’d have to be able to compartmentalize your feelings and keep a certain detachment. I wonder if the majority of human beings are capable of that? I know I’m not evolved enough, and I’m sure I never will be!

I think polyamory/any sexual relationship is okay as long as it is 100% consensual for everyone involved, and no one is being hurt or exploited.

Some birds and animals mate for life with one partner, don’t they? Storks, for instance. I wonder why that is.

Jessica Burton, as Amy Clare says, there are good reasons for not getting intimate with your close family members! Didn’t the Pharoahs die out because they kept marrying their brothers and sisters? And look at the Brit royal family to see the result of what happens when past generations marry their cousins!

Laura // Posted 16 September 2009 at 2:57 pm

Good points, Jessica, thanks.

Denise // Posted 16 September 2009 at 3:04 pm

Hi Laura,

I deemed it inconsiderate that you didn’t appear to have properly read what I wrote. Which, given your question, still seems to be the case.


I’m done here!

Lilly // Posted 16 September 2009 at 3:53 pm

I can actually imagine being in love with several people at once – in fact, it has been known to happen quite often in my case! – but not being in a relationship with all or even more than one of them at the same time. To me, a relationship is about so much more than sexual desire and romantic infatuation; I personally would rate the companionate aspects of a relationship much higher. And again, *to me*, sexual fidelity is part and parcel of a committed relationship precisely because a committed relationship isn’t all about sex and romance (paradoxical though it may sound). Love is such a tricky business and its mechanisms so diverse that – again, to me, in my case, just to make that sufficiently clear – polyamory would probably begin by diverting some of my romantic interest to other people and end up diluting the rest of my feelings as well. In the end I’d probably not care very deeply about any of my lovers at all. And I say this as someone with a highly ‘compartmentalised’ brain: this would be easy for me, and alas, it also makes me fickle by nature.

I know it isn’t the same for everybody, by any means, but I know I’m not alone in being this way either. I simply don’t see commitment of this kind, or lack thereof, as a feminist issue in itself…

Actually, I can’t really see the difference between polyamory and an ‘open relationship’ – is there a difference? I have only anecdotal knowledge of this, but if the people I know and know about are anything to go by, I’d say about 95% of the couples in question have failed in their attempts at ‘open relationships’. For many reasons. The most common refrain being the good old ‘grass is greener’: if I don’t commit in this way, why commit at all, especially if there’s someone potentially ‘better’ out there and the current relationship has hit a rocky patch, etc.

Olli // Posted 16 September 2009 at 4:02 pm

I’m genuinely puzzled by some of the comments here. Some types of relationships aren’t “natural”, apparently, and this should matter because of some unspecified reason, in an organism whose primary adaptive mechanism is culture? Also, it’s amusing that some women don’t consider sex a special sacred act? It’s “disingenuous” to suggest that they might have that opinion?

I’m a bisexual man, in a very long-term relationship with another bisexual man. We’re not polyamorous – because the issue hasn’t come up, as we’ve never wanted a relationship with anyone else who was in a position to have a relationship with one of us. There’s one woman I’d quite like to date, but even if she wanted to, I wouldn’t – with my current self-knowledge, I believe a relationship with me would be unpleasant and difficult for her (long story).

We have had a bit of extra-relationship sex, and I do think of it as more exciting than tennis. Why is that? Partially because I’ve been socially conditioned to do so, and partially because it’s much easier for me to find a tennis court than a sex partner – I have Asperger’s syndrome, and a great deal of trouble with new places and people.

Obviously, no type of relationship is inherently feminist. I’ve met a couple of guys who were all “we have non-monogamy now”, ignoring their partners’ requests for monogamy: i.e. justifying their cheating. However, I’ve also met tons more women than men who are actually non-monogamous/considering actual non-monogamy, in every number/sex combination.

The writer of this post didn’t insult monogamous folk. But people jumped right to “minority blah wants to influence MY blah!”


Lindsey // Posted 16 September 2009 at 4:51 pm

polygamy fans often seem to talk about relationships as being somehow ‘trapped’, but in a good relationship, i dont feel trapped at all, and i resent being told that i am by people who clearly just have more of a sex drive than me and are imposing their urges on me as normal and standard (as if there can ever be a normal sexual standard!)

loyalty is inherent to how i define love. if loyalty wasnt involved, for me, it wouldnt be love. thats not some tired old fashioned claptrap i’ve picked up from social conditioning, thats how i feel and i’m not interested in questioning it because it does me just fine and doesnt hurt me. all this ‘good in theory and on paper’ free love stuff would hurt me a lot.

so lets be pretty careful about what we talk of as natural, healthy, normal, incontrollable. its just imposing your own sexual standards on others, and in some cases such talk is used to justify cheating on someone and to make them feel guilty for complaining. emotionally abusive boyfriends spring to mind…

‘Is there actually anything essentially wrong with kissing someone else? With having sex with someone else?’

yes. hurting the person you love. thats what commitment means – its not being trapped, its choosing not to do something because you dont, in any real or even mildly important sense, want to.

Lilly // Posted 16 September 2009 at 4:54 pm

“The writer of this post didn’t insult monogamous folk. But people jumped right to “minority blah wants to influence MY blah!””

I don’t know if it’s quite that, Olli. I don’t know if you read a lot of feminist blogs etc., but there is quite a bit of ‘monogamy is anti-feminist and backward’ sentiment out there. Or at least I come across it pretty regularly.

It doesn’t offend me at all, personally, but I think this argument does boil down to the old ‘I’m a better feminist than you because I do X’/’how dare you suggest I’m not a real feminist just because I don’t do X’ chestnut… even if none of the people involved in the debate really mean it like that.

Laura // Posted 16 September 2009 at 5:04 pm

‘Is there actually anything essentially wrong with kissing someone else? With having sex with someone else?’ yes. hurting the person you love. thats what commitment means – its not being trapped, its choosing not to do something because you dont, in any real or even mildly important sense, want to.

Clearly there’s something wrong with this when it comes to you and your relationships, Lindsey, but I don’t think that means it is essentially wrong. If the other person is okay with it, no one is getting hurt.

JenniferRuth // Posted 16 September 2009 at 5:15 pm

@ Olli

The writer of this post didn’t insult monogamous folk. But people jumped right to “minority blah wants to influence MY blah!”

To be fair, it did insult monogamy a little. For example:

“Why should we prevent the people we love from essentially just having a good time?”

– which implies that monogamous couples are being selfish and denying their partners a fair chance to be happy.

I don’t think that this was what Laura meant at all, but I can understand why some may read it that way.

Also, if you think most people commenting here have jumped all over this post in a negative manner then you have not been reading the comments properly. Most people have been commenting on their personal experiences.

Personally, I thought the most important part of the post was this:

“But no one ever seems to stop and ask why.”

Feminism is all about asking why. I prefer monogamy for the various reasons I listed in my previous comment but maybe if I hadn’t been brought up in a culture that privileges and near demands monogamous relationships I wouldn’t be so attached to it? Or maybe not…

As Jess said:

“The fact is that we’re in a kyriarchal society 24/7, and sometimes that shows itself in our relationships too”

So we are never truly free to make choices without previous cultural influence.

This doesn’t mean that polyamory is free from patriarchal influence either…

shreen // Posted 16 September 2009 at 5:28 pm

Laura Woodhouse said: “…just suggesting that perhaps we could think a little more about sexual freedom, whether it really is such a bad or destructive thing and what the accepted norms surrounding fidelity are based on.”

This is really the crux of the original post, and it makes complete sense to me now. ;]

Is sexual freedom a bad thing? I don’t believe so, as long as the usual disclaimers apply (consenting adults, sensible precautions against STDs, a healthy understanding of the situation by all involved etc.). It certainly is a shame that most people assume monogamy is the only sexual lifestyle choice available, but we have to bear in mind that a lot of people are actually happiest in that choice, so it makes it complicated to pick apart people who do it simply because they are too scared to try atypical things, and the people who genuinely love it.

Why do we have the commonly accepted norms surrounding fidelity? I don’t think we *do* have accepted norms at all. Some people think that even watching porn or even contemplating an affair constitutes as infidelity. But I struggle to see how a group of people indulging in polyamory can even define infidelity? Perhaps to them there is no such thing, unless some very personal bond of trust has been broken?

Laura // Posted 16 September 2009 at 5:32 pm

Personally, I thought the most important part of the post was this: “But no one ever seems to stop and ask why.” Feminism is all about asking why.

Yes! Thanks for that, JenniferRuth.

thebeardedlady // Posted 16 September 2009 at 6:11 pm

Interesting discussion… I agree strongly with the points George made.

Whatever kind of relationships we have, we are going to be fighting against the influence of society on them… we are always going to be acting out our ‘roles’ within society, or fighting against that. Relationships and families are a microcosm of society — male privelege doesn’t stop when you close the front door. Whatever kind of sexual, romantic, loving relationships we are in, we have to confront these issues all the time.

Of course we all believe that our own desires and feelings are ‘natural’ and those who feel differently are a little strange. I would definitely question how natural sexual desires are, though, especially considering that women are traditionally not supposed to have any! It wasn’t that long ago that women were incarcerated for expressing sexual desire, and it’s only recently that the female orgasm has been widely accepted as not a myth. For a long time, female desire was legitimised only through attachment to a male, so is it any wonder that it feels ‘natural’ to many women to only want one man? And equally, we are trained so hard to find and get and keep that men, and to see other women as a threat, is it really surprising that we ‘naturally’ hate the idea of our partner with other people?

For me, personally, I agree wholeheartedly with what a good poly friend of mine says – each relationship is different and has to find its own level. I’ve had committed relationships with men where there’s been no sex at all, polyamourous flings, all sorts of odd set ups. My main problem with poly-ness is a lack of time! I haven’t got the time/energy for one partner, let alone a whole load of them! Generally, I think it has to be about what works for you, as many have said.

Great post – it definitely got people thinking!

Charlie Twist // Posted 17 September 2009 at 1:45 am

Amy Clare: In response to the questions about what happens if…

Firstly, it’s not a quick fuck. Open relationships allow for quick fuck’s, being poly implies you have multiple partner’s. People you love and, at least in my case, people I’d move mountains for.

The difference is that I don’t feel restricted in any way. I have some interesting issues with personal space and time that makes holding down a regular relationship exceedingly difficult. So this works for me.

One of my relationships actually developed out of an illness. One of my male partners has a girlfriend who is an amazingly lovely person but also extremely sick. On the one hand this means that physical relations can be sporadic and rather rare between them and on the other it means she demands a lot of his time (Needs it, not jumps up and down type of demands). I fit myself in around her needs. I’m secondary to that because I’m his “other” and she is his first priority. I adore the woman and she adores me, when she’s healthy we make an effort to catch up and drive him up the wall, and when my life went to shit earlier this year arrangements were made so that he was available if I needed him. Other partner’s stepped up to the plate there and it wasn’t necessary but it was just done no questions asked.

My relationship with that boy is no less loving because of our other partners. It’s a bit of a juggling act sometime, and when I’m busy we can go a month or more with our only correspondence being text and dirty pics sent back and forth, but if you’re devoted to it you make it work.

As I mentioned it’s something that’s appropriate for some not all. Some people are dead set against it in their own lives. I have friends that maintain a relationship where he is poly and she isn’t, and it has it’s moments but it works well for them. Some people out rightly reject it at all as seen above and tend to just think of poly girls as sluts (Note I say poly girls here… grrrr).

Charlie Twist // Posted 17 September 2009 at 2:14 am

Sorry for the double post here…

Just to clarify a few things from a poly perspective.

Open relationships vs poly-relationships:

Open relationships allow for casual sex, the level of closeness to the person determined by the relationship, that isn’t “usually” regular or with the same person.

Poly-relationships are relationships with multiple people. “Usually” over an extended period with the same people and there’s often very string feelings involved. And yes from time to time jealousy rears it’s head.

On the girls waiting for one guy to pick. This isn’t a poly relationship for those girls, this is those girls being foolish. If he’s not going to pick one to start with he probably never will. They need a wee bit of a reality check.

On monogamy: I’m struggling to explain how monogamous relationships make me feel. Beholden was the best way to put it without long explanations. I don’t feel like my partner is controlling me, owns me or anything like that, but if my partner is monogamous I feel restricted. Especially as most monogamous people, in MY experience, don’t deal well with their partner being overly affectionate with other people. I last a top of 18 months before this starts to drive me completely insane and I leave. This is not a reflection on my partners but on me. I feel beholden because of they way I am. I just wanted to clarify that…

And finally changing relationships: Quite frankly comes straight back to communication and respect. You go into poly-relationships knowing that this might happen, that you might be the one it doesn’t happen with as well. Poly-relationships are hard work, just like monogamous ones, they’ve just got a slightly different set of issues to be addressed. Most poly-relationships I’ve been part of there’s a “primary” partner (Usually the initial couple) and then others. Due to my nature I’m often that “other” and I quite comfortable in that role. It comes with the understanding that the primary partner will almost always take precedent over myself with exception of very exceptional circumstances, but it also comes with the understanding on the other side that if I “need” (not want, actually need) my partner for something important then the primary’s want comes second. It suits me because I’m very very independent of other people. From my experience however I’ve come to the conclusion that most poly people need to be someone’s primary for it to work well.

Jane // Posted 17 September 2009 at 2:52 am

Completely agree with this article – If sexual jealousy isn’t caused by the patriarchy, it’s helped by it.

Butterflywings // Posted 17 September 2009 at 3:16 pm

Agree with JenniferRuth.

I don’t think Laura meant the piece as advocating polyamory, but as questioning, and exploring. And like JR says, feminism is about asking why.

But I can see why some people interpreted it as a promotion of polyamory.

There is sometimes a fine line between asking why/ examining, and judgement of others’ choices.

I suppose ‘why’ can be a straight ‘why’ and it can also be a ‘why’ that implies judging.

This can apply to almost anything in life, but it’s certainly a miscommunication that comes up in feminism a lot, with various issues.

As for polyamory specifically, sorry, I don’t believe it’s any more or less feminist than exclusive relationships. I do stress *or less*. As others have said, nothing we do is outside of patriarchal society. I think consenting women doing what they choose *is* feminist. There could be poly relationships which aren’t feminist, for example if the man is pushing the woman into it because he is the one that really wants it – *not* saying all poly relationships are like that – and equally,

The questions Laura raises about ‘patriarchal notions of possession, control and sex’ are not only valid, but important; after all, men ‘cheating’ is just boys being boys and almost expected, but women doing so is seen as far worse (and even as justification for murdering her). And not only that, we often think we own or ‘have’ our partner. I do think those things are worth questioning.

I don’t even think these ideas are just about sex but emotional too – a number of my female friends have or have had boyfriends who got jealous if they dared to, essentially, have a life outside them! Saying ‘you spend too much time at work’ ‘you don’t need to see your friends so much’ and so on.

It is possible, though, to have sex with someone without them being The Love Of Your Life (TM) or even a long term relationship. For me, though, I have to at a minimum, like them – I couldn’t have sex with someone I didn’t give a *&^% one way or the other about, let alone actively didn’t like.

I mean, you could argue most people are serial monogamists, i.e. have a committed relationship with several people throughout their lives, one at a time. What if two or more of those people had come along at once? That is, if you don’t think there is The One, but a fairly small number of people who each of us is compatible with – logically, there’s no reason for those people to have to be one at a time.

What is commitment, anyway, and is it just about sex? Being there for that person.

That said, others above have brought up the issue of what if I needed my partner and he was with someone else…my take on that is, a partner who won’t be there for the other partner in a genuine crisis/ upset (e.g. illness, bereavement, been mugged and need to get home…) because they’d rather be doing their own thing is a selfish piece of work, whether that thing is having sex with someone else or drinking with their friends or playing football. If they *will* drop what they’re doing, then fair enough, what more can you expect?

The more I think about it, the more interesting this is to think about…

I still don’t think I’d choose polyamory, but it’s definitely possible to use some of the ideas and build less possessive monogamous relationships, too.

H-Bomb // Posted 17 September 2009 at 4:03 pm

I get the point of polyamory; and combined with not being a jealous person and being a bit of a big fat slag, the whole concept of open relationships and polyamory (not that I’m saying they are the same thing) appeals to me. However, I’m still in a monogamous relationship. Why?

Because while love ain’t limited, time is. I barely have time to put in the effort and commitment needed to maintain one loving, solid relationship. I have a demanding job, an active social life, and I am involved in a few different sports. I go on one date night a week with my lover, and apart from that I generally come home late, eat leftovers, have sex and fall asleep. Where on earth do you polys find the time to have a relationship with more than one person?!

Crazy times!

Holly Combe // Posted 17 September 2009 at 8:02 pm

I wholeheartedly agree with thebeardedlady that this is a great post which has got people thinking. I’m a bit late coming to it and I’ve been given so much to reflect on that I’m not sure where to begin!

I think JenniferRuth is right that the socially constructed framing of monogamy as the ideal “limits people from exploring and discovering what is right for them”. We need to be able choose or not choose monogamy as we see fit but there is little help in mainstream society for negotiating the difficulties a poly relationship might face. Although there is a growing body of literature for non-monogamists, I’d say this is a mere drop in the ocean compared to the years of marriage-guidance advice and help available for monogamous people experiencing difficulty. It seems to me that conventional society actually wants us to fail if we choose non-monogamy because it needs us to sexually police our partners and allow them to sexually police us so as to do our bit in maintaining social order and limiting free sexual expression.

Like Laura, I am not saying I think monogamy in itself is somehow wrong. Indeed, I speak as someone in a very happy monogamous relationship but, as I see it, the uncomfortable truth is that I am at least potentially instrumental in this form of social control by being monogamous and I definitely am if I dismiss sexual jealousy as unproblematic. By this, I mean that it is rather too easy to end up indulging one’s jealous feelings because of an encouragement from conventional society to do so. It seems we are generally (and often unfairly) taught to curb our emotions as we grow up but then along comes sexual jealousy and suddenly we get the message that it’s not only okay to feel that way but desirable. Furthermore, we are taught that our feelings for a lover can’t be that deep if it doesn’t tear us up inside to even think of them with anyone else. Yes, there are socially set limits on how we express our jealousy but I’d say that, by and large, being at least a little bit sexually jealous will meet more social approval than not being jealous at all.

I have to say I’m very surprised to find the link between monogamy and patriarchy being viewed as tenuous but I guess the matter has been complicated over the years by the way the traditional double standard in men’s favour now tends to be tackled. We continue to be sold the stereotype that men find monogamy more difficult than women due to a “seed spreading” imperative. I think this socially accepted “truth”, in effect, makes it somewhat easier for men to be non-monogamous (i.e it’s expected of them and this tends to dilute any disaproval and stop it having as much impact). However, it seems conventional society would still prefer to at least appear to place the same pressure on men to be monogamous that women have endured at the hands of possessive men than go in the opposite direction and allow everyone to more openly enjoy the sexual freedoms men have traditionally been allowed, on the sly (i.e in the form of the tutted at but expected “philandering” or “cheating”).

Cathy AB // Posted 17 September 2009 at 11:50 pm

Its an interesting subject,personally i dont think it would be for me and honesty is the key,if i met a man and he told me he was into this i’d like to think my reaction would be “thanks for being honest but no thanks”.I’d be upset though if i found out 6 months into the relationship. I dont want to go off the subject but i think theres so much we dont know about sexuality,maybe we are all basically bisexual with a bias to either homo/hetrosexuality,for example ive never had a lesbian relationship or even fantasy but who knows i could go out tomorrow and meet my perfect partner who happens to be a woman and maybe its the same with polyamory,i think i know what my reaction would be but perhaps not only could i accept it but it could change my behaviour. Wouldnt it be interesting if there was some device that would let us view human behaviour minus the social conditioning.

Kate // Posted 18 September 2009 at 4:31 am

Despite Laura’s sensible post and the link to the original article there seem to be an awful lot of misconceptions as to what polyamory actually is being bandied about here.

Polyamory is not the same as legalised cheating and it absolutely is (or can be) different to an open relationship.

Successful polyamory requires at least as much consideration of the needs and emotions of those involved as monogamy, so the idea that people can start up new relationships without any regard for or input from their existing partners is simply ridiculous.

This website provides a great explanation for, and rebuttal of the myths surrounding polyamory:

This bit in particular seems worth reproducing:

“Anyway, as I was saying, in a poly relationship, it is vital–perhaps even more vital than in a monogamous relationship–for everyone involved to know and understand the rules of the relationship, and abide by them. A successful poly relationship absolutely requires trust and security from everyone involved. If you cannot abide by the relationship’s rules, you cannot expect to make a polyamorous relationship work.”

Whilst I would never want to suggest that polyamory is somehow ‘superior’ to monogamy, I find it equally offensive when monogamists seem so keen to retain its place as the status quo rather than merely one of the options. (And this issue of free choice is what makes the subject a feminist issue in my opinion). The majority of the polyamorists I know consider their relationships to be as deep, loving, loyal and committed as anyone else’s. Alot of the people who claim to be simply standing up for their own choices here seem to be doing so by implying that this cannot possibly be the case.

Linda Radfem // Posted 18 September 2009 at 11:43 pm

Hey there, first time commenter here.

Thankyou for raising such a sticky subject, Laura and thanks to those who have corrected some of the myths about people who identify as poly.

I am one of those people and I just want to point out that being intimately or sexually involved with more than one person does not mean that the deeper elements of an interpersonal relationship can’t develop and grow just like they do in mono-relationships.

I’ve maintained close storgic relationships, which may or may not be sexual, that are based on love, trust and mutual respect/regard with several people, for *years* now.

Only having this level of intimacy with one person feels as unnatural to me now as say only ever having one friend, and I totally agree that the idea of monogamy as default is connected to the cultural imperatives of patriarchy.

When I believed that I was restricted to just one partner then I was very jealous about that partner because that one person sort of became my whole world. Now that I have several special people in my life I feel more free to focus on other aspects of life such as work and study; it’s freed me up because I no longer feel totally responsible for the emotional wellbeing of one person.

Thanks again for posting this, Laura. I think it’s really important for alternative voices to be allowed to shape discourses about these issues and I appreciate you providing the space for it here.



oldfeminist // Posted 19 September 2009 at 1:03 am

I find some of the monogamists questions…odd. Definitely begging the question in the classic sense of assuming the conclusion before starting the argument.

What if you need help and your primary partner has a hot date? Well, if I needed help and my husband had planned a movie night out with his nephew, he’d cancel. Good people in a close relationship do this for each other.

You could only have multiple sexual relationships if you compartmentalized them all? I don’t understand why. Polyamory isn’t living a double (or triple, or whatever) life where you have to hide what you feel about the other people you have a relationship with.

You can’t deeply love more than one person? Again, why not? I think many if not most of us loved our mother and our father pretty deeply.

Sex requires more trust than tennis? Sure, but I trust family members and friends in a way I don’t trust tennis partners, more than I have with many people I had sex with.

If someone said the same things about family relationships, or close friendships, everyone would think she was out of her gourd.

Yet another Helen // Posted 19 September 2009 at 2:50 am

I’ve talked about this a fair bit with my polyamorous friend and he summed it up in saying “I think it’s really sad that we’re allowed to hate as many people as we like but only love one person.”

What a disingenuous conflation of “love” and sex.

shreen // Posted 19 September 2009 at 8:00 pm

A lot of commenters here seem to think myself and others are somehow ‘attacking’ the original post because we felt it a threat to our choice to become monogamous. I think this is incorrect. I got the impression that most readers of this website are intelligent enough to know what they want in terms of lifestyle, so I felt that the original post was stating the obvious.

I am completely open to challenging ideas, and willing to listen to clearly explained arguments, but so far I have not read anything that helps me to understand how monogamy is linked to patriarchy. I can’t see it differentiated from the notion that wearing lipstick is somehow anit-feminist. Am I missing something here?

Linda Radfem // Posted 20 September 2009 at 10:33 pm

Everything is linked to patriarchy. We’re all socialised to uphold the status quo and that means being socialised into forming traditional patriarchal nuclear family units.

It’s how patriarchy works.

Laura // Posted 21 September 2009 at 10:25 am

Hi Yet another Helen,

Polyamory is about having relationships with more than one person, not just sex (although I mentioned both in my post).

Kez // Posted 21 September 2009 at 3:54 pm

But we’re not “allowed to hate as many people as we like but love only one person” as quoted above. I love and have various sorts of caring relationship with lots of people, and don’t particularly hate anybody. Can I therefore define myself as “polyamorous”, even though I am only sexually involved with one person? I assume not.

shreen // Posted 21 September 2009 at 5:26 pm

But that *does* feel tenuous to me, Linda Radfem. Of course we are all socialised and that cannot be removed from the equation.

But how would you know if a specific individual was surrendering to social norms, or simply following their own desires by being monogamous? Surely it is near impossible to distinguish? I think that most sexually and emotionally intelligent people understand their own choices very well, and perhaps have considered or experimented in polyamorous relationships but decided it wasn’t for them.

I mean, its not as if being linked, no matter how tenuous, to patriarchy suddenly makes monogamy inherently bad and means everyone should suddenly respect poly-relationships. You can question the respect people pay to polyamory or polygamy without having to question other lifestyles in the process.

And as already mentioned, there are arguments that put poly-lifestyles in a very male-driven scenario. Historically, it was men who had multiple partners, not women. So by becoming polyamorous, it can equally be said that you are now deep rooted in an ancient sexist tradition. It’s lose-lose. There is no right or wrong, which is why I am still puzzled as to why it even matters if monogamy is linked to patriarchy. It doesn’t make one iota of difference to me.

Let’s respect each other’s choices, and not be presumptuous about what sexual lifestyles people should or shouldn’t have. New relationships need boundaries set early on to avoid confusion, and this is certainly something which I don’t see being done enough. Surely this is the message that should come out of this discussion? :]

Kate // Posted 21 September 2009 at 6:25 pm


I think the reason that the original post was relevant and not simply stating something obvious is to do with the different values that society puts on the choices women make.

Although we are all technically free to make our own decisions, certain choices are still seen as less acceptable than others and this is bound to feed into the way we view the options. So, for example, although I think most feminists would have no problem with the idea that someone could be a feminist and wear lipstick, or be a feminist and shave their legs, it might be more necessary to point out the fact that it’s equally ok *not* to do these things… because actually it is almost assumed that women not just *can* do them, but *should* do them.

For me the idea of polyamory falls under this category. I don’t believe that monogamy in itself is inherently patriarchal but it’s status as the default position probably is. Monogamy as one of a range of equally valid and respected choices is not something I have any problem with. But I do have a problem with the idea that monogamy is ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ and everything else is a deviation. I realise that this isn’t what you were saying but I think this is the prevailing social view and for this reason it’s the alternative lifestyles like polyamory that currently need our support and attention.

To me it’s a bit like arguing for gay equal rights. To do so doesn’t imply that there is anything wrong with being straight, simply that there is an imbalance to be addressed. Monogamy doesn’t (to me) need sticking up for… polyamory probably does.

shreen // Posted 21 September 2009 at 6:49 pm

Kate, I was also thinking of the gay rights similarities when I wrote my previous post.

The idea that something is not normal/unnatural is usually a backhanded way of saying ‘you digust me’ (of course we are talking about reasonable situations here that do no harm to others). It’s an ignorant stance and certainly one to be addressed as vigorously as homophobia is.

Thanks for all the responses to my naive questions. This is the first time I bothered airing my views on this site, as often I have been put off making any comments because the majority of my thoughts end up as ‘stupid questions’. :]

Amy Clare // Posted 21 September 2009 at 8:08 pm

@oldfeminist, you said:

“Sex requires more trust than tennis? Sure, but I trust family members and friends in a way I don’t trust tennis partners, more than I have with many people I had sex with.”

You seem to have misunderstood my original point about sex and tennis, which was in response to this line in the OP:

“So why should engaging in [sexual] activity with someone who isn’t your partner be any more hurtful to said partner than playing tennis or going for a meal with someone else?”

My point tried to clarify what it was, for me personally, that makes sex different from other, ‘platonic’, activities. I mentioned vulnerability and trust (and how much you would have to like someone to take a risk for them) as factors that make sex qualitatively different from tennis, for *me personally*. I think you’re being a bit disingenuous when you mention that you trust some family members more than some people you’ve had sex with – so do I – but the original issue was why would having sex with someone else hurt your partner more than playing tennis with someone else.


Thanks for responding. I suppose what I was wondering is what happens when a person needs so much help and support from their partner that a second relationship for said partner is just not an option, there is no time or energy for it. (Or what happens when a person has two relationships and both of those partners need support.) As a disabled person whose partner is also my carer at times, I can see how difficulties would arise.

@Holly Combe:

While I agree that a certain amount of jealousy is accepted as normal in our society, I don’t believe that treating this emotion as problematic will solve anything. It is as natural an emotion as anger, sadness, joy or anything else, and if we start saying it is not okay to be jealous, then people will repress this emotion and this is not healthy.

Jealousy is an unpleasant emotion to experience and this is a good enough reason for people to be encouraged to work through it (whatever their preferred relationship style), but people need to accept this emotion as human and natural before it can be dealt with. Like anger, jealousy needs to be expressed in a way that doesn’t hurt other people. That doesn’t mean it isn’t human to be jealous sometimes.

Charlie Twist // Posted 21 September 2009 at 11:25 pm

@ Amy Clare

Honestly I don’t know. I can guess that the dynamics would change perhaps to monogamy for some, for others it would be worked around and for others it would spell the end…

I think for those couples with only one other shared partner it could actually be a useful thing. An extra set of hands willing to help out and by proxy a second person means that there’s room to move with scheduling…

But then I’m a relatively healthy and physically fully functional person with no seriously disabled people in my life, so really this falls it the realm of theory and guess work for me.

thebeardedlady // Posted 22 September 2009 at 12:22 am

I agree that jealousy is an emotion that most people do experience when it comes to their close relationships. There’s an interesting book about polyamory called The Ethical Slut — I think it’s in the F Word book shop — which talks a lot about the jealousy side of things. As I recall, the basic idea was that people in poly relationships do get jealous but the task is not to see your jealousy as something your partner should take responsibility for. In a poly set up, ideally, everything is very open and everyone’s feelings are listened to and supported — but you can’t use your jealousy as a way of controlling your partner. You just have to ask them to support you in dealing with it yourself.

I do like this idea of being responsible for your own emotions and not using them to control your partner.

I read the book out of interest and curiousity, but I must say it rather put me off that the authors seemed to basically have had sex with everyone in their social circle, and were relaxed enough to see it as just another nice way to spend time with someone you like. Er, maybe I’m a bit uptight, but I really don’t want to shag all my mates… or any of them, for that matter! Well, maybe one or two… Definitely worth reading the book, though.

Linda Radfem // Posted 22 September 2009 at 2:49 am

Shreen, you asked how do we know if someone chooses monogamy because it was their personal choice or because of socialisation.

All I can say to that is that our desires and personal choices are shaped by the way we are socialised. For example, it was my choice to have children and I wanted them, but at the same time I can see how the way in which little girls are socialised to conform to gender roles, played a part in my developing that desire. Women particularly, having a lower social status than men, can feel very compelled to live up to certain gendered expectations because we rarely get social approval for anythng else. Looking back on life, I see that almost all of the ‘choices’ I made that were not in my best interests, were for that reason.

Also, please don’t confuse polyamory with polygamy – it’s hard to visualise any type of relationship that doesn’t benefit men over women because after all, this is a patriarchy, but I think you might be looking at the idea of polyamory the wrong way. Someone earlier said how do poly people find the time? So I’m guessing that people who are in the traditional monogamous relationship are thinking that poly people use that same model for their relationships but times it by 2 or 3 or whatever. There is no way I would have time for that! And I do not presume to speak for others but my life does not look like that. My life is focused on my work, my study and my immediate family, which consists of two teenage children. My interpersonal relationships don’t occupy much of my energy at all, unlike when I was married and a lot of my energy went into maintaining that relationship.

Clearly there are a lot of misconceptions about the poly lifestyle and I feel like this discussion is getting really big now, and I’m not explaining myself clearly. I think I will put up a post of my own about this sometime soonish, because it’s hard to defend my life without it looking as though I’m attacking someone elses. That’s not the case.

Someone mentioned a monogamous privilege check list. I’d start that with:

1.Your lifestyle or relationship requires no introduction, explanation or defense.

2.People won’t assume you are a poor parent because you are only in a relationship with one other person, even if the quality of that relationship is not very good.

3.If something goes wrong in your life people won’t say it’s because you are only in a relationship with one other person.

Amy Clare // Posted 22 September 2009 at 10:31 am

Another couple of things…

Laura said in her comment above that “Perhaps we could think a little more about sexual freedom, whether it really is such a bad or destructive thing”… Well no, sexual freedom is a *good* thing. But sexual freedom means being free to choose who you want to have sex with. If I choose to only have sex with one person, then I am just as sexually free as a person who chooses to have sex with lots of people. No?

Also, I have yet to hear a convincing argument as to why monogamy is inherently patriarchal. Yes, monogamy is the dominant relationship style in our society. Yes, we live in a patriarchal society. But it is wrong to jump to the conclusion that therefore monogamy *per se* must be a product of patriarchy. Monogamy existed (in the animal world) before there was any such thing as patriarchy.

There is nothing inherently oppressive or patriarchal about two individuals who see each other as equals choosing to be in an exclusive relationship. Saying otherwise insults the intelligence of monogamous people. Yes there can be issues of control and power in a monogamous relationship, but please don’t tell me that these issues never crop up in poly relationships.

I think the reason why this post has got some people’s backs up (including mine, as do many posts on polyamory to be honest), is the association of monogamy with control, prevention, ownership, lack of freedom… For example the line: “Why should we prevent the people we love from essentially just having a good time?” Well, what if my partner’s idea of a good time is spending time with me, and vice versa?

It would be nice to read a discussion of polyamory which didn’t rely on criticising monogamy to get its point across.

Kez // Posted 22 September 2009 at 10:37 am

Hi Beardedlady,

I can see the point about being responsible for your own emotions and not using them to control your partner. I guess my concern would be that this could easily be twisted into “it’s your problem if you’re jealous, I’m not responsible for how you feel about my behaviour”. I see this used quite a lot (mainly by men towards women, I have to say) and it can be used to justify inconsiderate behaviour on the grounds that “it’s not up to me to take responsibility for how you feel about my behaviour” [banghead]

But surely people in loving relationships do have a responsibility to be aware of and take into consideration how their behaviour impacts on others.

I appreciate this is probably not what the book is saying but I do think it’s quite easy to twist it into something which suits one party more than the other (and then handily puts the other one in the wrong), relationships being such complicated matters anyway!

Don’t know whether that makes any sense…

Laura // Posted 22 September 2009 at 2:05 pm

Amy Clare,

I don’t think any one here has said monogamy is inherently patriarchal – I certainly don’t think it is – but I do think we are to some extent conditioned into sexual jealousy and monogamous norms by popular culture, societal expectations and the patriarchal tradition of relationships as marriages based on ownership.

For example the line: “Why should we prevent the people we love from essentially just having a good time?” Well, what if my partner’s idea of a good time is spending time with me, and vice versa?

Then that’s absolutely fine. As I said in the post, all answers to these questions and all forms of consensual relationship are equally valid.

Laura // Posted 22 September 2009 at 2:30 pm

Linda Radfem – Great points on the list there.

Holly Combe // Posted 22 September 2009 at 5:10 pm

Yes, totally agree about the conditioning into sexual jealousy and I do think the rules of monogamy can often uncomfortably echo the “patriarchal notions of possession” mentioned in the original post.

In terms of thinking about how monogamy and patriarchy might relate to one another, it theoretically goes like this for me: I don’t want to be treated as the property of a partner and it follows that I want to lead by example and avoid doing that to him or her. That isn’t to say I see any monogamous arrangement as some inevitable display of “ownership” but I think it’s often very hard for it not to be seen like that on some level if left unchecked. It seems to me that a good way to challenge that function is to not take monogamy as a given (the challenge I think Laura’s post invited) and make sure any pledge to be monogamous (if, indeed, there is one at all) is an active and wholehearted one.

I appreciate that a decision to be monogamous, as a woman, obviously doesn’t have to be rooted in patriarchal values but don’t all patriarchal systems generally expect women to be monogamous, regardless of however men are allowed or expected to conduct themselves? Isn’t that a central part of the stud/slut sexual double standard? And is monogamy-for-all the only way to dismantle that tradition?

Holly Combe // Posted 22 September 2009 at 5:28 pm

…Actually, thinking about it, are there any patriarchal societies that don’t expect women to be monogamous?

Amy Clare // Posted 22 September 2009 at 8:15 pm


“I do think we are to some extent conditioned into sexual jealousy and monogamous norms by popular culture, societal expectations and the patriarchal tradition of relationships as marriages based on ownership.”

Isn’t that just another way of saying that monogamy is patriarchal, though? Marriage may have been traditionally based on men owning women, which is certainly patriarchal, but it is a leap to apply this to monogamy per se.

For example, your theory that we are conditioned into monogamy by patriarchal traditions does not explain why many *women* feel sexual jealousy, feel hurt when cheated on, wish their partners to be faithful to them. (Because according to the patriarchal tradition, men own women, not the other way round.) Also, what about same-sex relationships – how do patriarchal traditions play out there?

It also ignores the fact that many monogamous people are actually not jealous people – my partner isn’t, for example – they just choose to be exclusive to their partners because this is what they like to do, what works best for them.

Moreover, if you are a sexist person, you will be a sexist person regardless of what relationship style you choose.

@Holly Combe:

“That isn’t to say I see any monogamous arrangement as some inevitable display of “ownership” but I think it’s often very hard for it not to be seen like that on some level if left unchecked.”

What do you mean by ‘left unchecked’? And if some people see monogamy as ownership, is that not their problem, and their prejudice? Their failure to judge every relationship on its own individual merits?

Sorry if I come across as rude, but I find this subject very frustrating. I don’t think ‘monogamy for all’ is a good thing, what I think is that everyone should be free to choose what relationship style is best for them, and all relationship styles ought to be recognised by our society. I’d certainly be up for contributing to a discussion about how best to achieve that. Too often though, discussions/posts about polyamory descend into a list of what is supposedly ‘wrong’ with monogamy.

Linda Radfem // Posted 22 September 2009 at 10:10 pm

I don’t think it’s a criticism of monogamy per se, (although the traditional patriarchal family unit can definitely do with some criticism – I’m talking about the abuses that can grow out of that unit), but a criticism of the fact that monogamy is held up as the default relationship and an ideal which we are all expected to live up to, which then opens up space for discrimination against those of us who don’t live up to it.

Laura // Posted 23 September 2009 at 10:25 am

Amy Clare,

I don’t think patriarchal socialisation affects everyone the same way or to the same extent, nor that it is the only influence on people’s choice to be monogamous, so monogamy is not inherently patriarchal. (I’m not sure anything has any inherent meaning, but that’s another discussion… ;-)

On sexual jealousy, most of us grow up watching films and TV shows like Friends, reading books and articles etc (to name just a couple of influences) that teach us that you should not engage in sexual activity with anyone other than your partner and that if your partner does this they are hurting you in almost the worst possible way. That conditioning can affect anyone, no matter their gender or sexuality.

Daniela Vincenti // Posted 24 September 2009 at 12:00 am

Hey Laura,

Having spent quite some time researching this topic I have now turned almost 180 degrees from my original thoughts.

I have not managed to find anything that is morally suspect about it (and believe me I have tried very hard), since no deceit or coercion is involved.

As you alluded later in the thread, polyamory does not have to be about casual sex, indeed it often involves partners pursuing other romantic liasions apart from their primary relationship.

There are many good resources available online on various practical aspects, including how to turn your jealousy into what is called compersion.

The aim is to eventually feel happy for your partner when you know he is having a good time with someone else, which I suppose is easier said than done. There are also various lists of counsellors that have experience in dealing with poly relationships, and who can provide assistance without prejudice.

Linda, my suggestion of a monogamous privilege checklist was very much tongue in cheek. Your points are very enlightening though and I am fully aware of the judgemental attitudes you must encounter in your daily life.

I still think that monogamy is not linked to the patriarchy, but is more of a gender-neutral status quo that reinforces itself through societal norms. Sexual jealousy is a very visceral emotion and the concept of monogamy predates even human history, as has been mentioned before.

Amy Clare, nobody here is suggesting that monogamy is wrong. The point here is that polyamory is a perfectly valid alternative that encounters widespread unfair prejudice, so many people end up seeing monogamy as the only viable option.

Does anyone here have any tips on how to approach a long term monogamous partner with a request to go poly? Preferably without him filing for divorce in reply.

Holly Combe // Posted 24 September 2009 at 9:47 pm

Hi Amy Clare, I only responded to the most recent comment I’d seen in this thread in my last contribution to the discussion and somehow managed to miss what you said directly to me. Sorry about that!

For the record, I didn’t think you came across as rude at all and I think what you said about having a discussion about how best to help everyone be free to choose what relationship style is best for them makes a lot of sense.

To clarify, I definitely don’t reckon it would be a positive step to say it’s not okay to experience feelings of jealousy. The thing that troubles me is the way conventional society doesn’t encourage us to take responsibility for those feelings and, on the contrary, seems to actually encourage us to indulge them as the ultimately right, proper and respectable proof of our love. It’s hard to sum it all up in a short comment but I would say that, even in a monogamous context, I’ve found much of the poly literature very helpful (particularly the stuff about accepting and “owning” feelings of jealousy).

When I mentioned monogamy “left unchecked” I was referring to the way I believe its status as the default tends to make it take even firmer hold as the presumed and *only* acceptable choice if it isn’t discussed at the beginning of a relationship. I guess if this happens when the people concerned wouldn’t wish to consider anything else anyway, there isn’t a problem but I think the complicated mess that relationships can often be just goes to show this isn’t always the case and that maybe a lot more people need to have some honest and open conversations about whether monogamy is suitable for them. The trouble is that some people really do want to “have their cake and eat it” or, to put it another way, to be monogamous in theory -in order to keep a partner to themselves- but not in practice (i.e to cheat). IMO, the better society becomes at accepting that it really is okay to be non-monogamous, the less likely it will be that essentially incompatible people will end up hurting each other. There will also be less of an excuse for the kind of individual who pretends to embrace monogamy and then indulges in double-standards cheating when they know only too well that their partner would be devastated about it.

Linda Radfem // Posted 25 September 2009 at 5:48 am

Daniela, I did wonder about that – oh well. I have Aspergers, and I tend to take things literally.

Sorry I don’t have any advice about bringing up the subject of polyamory with a long term partner. Oh hang on – was that a joke too? Doh.

Well whether it was or not, I couldn’t even imagine trying to do that. With me it wasn’t a case of me reading a book or something about polyamory and then saying yeah I think that’s what I want to do. My life just sort of evolved that way, and then it became apparent to me that people were putting a name or a label to my particular lifestyle.

I think Holly Combe made a good point there about people wanting to have it all. I know some married couples who are in effect poly, but they just sneak around and see people behind each other’s backs. Maybe people are addicted to the ‘stability’ of home-ownership, which is harder to maintain if you’re single. I just don’t share that addiction. I find the ‘stability’ thing really suffocating. I’m just weird like that.

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