What non-monogamy taught me about the ‘sex-positive’ movement

// 30 July 2013

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 I don’t believe in monogamy. Not for myself. I won’t promise anyone with whom I’m sexually or romantically intimate that, no matter how I feel in the future, or what kind of chemistry might arise between me and someone else, I won’t act on it if it’s sexual or romantic.

I promise to always be honest with my partners, because that’s crucial to consent (that you always know what you’re signed up to). I promise not to leave them in the lurch or betray them. I promise to respect them and nurture their self-esteem. But I don’t promise them anything about my relationships with other people. No one has ever offered me a satisfactory reason for why I should. I can’t rationalise it to myself.

That’s my short answer if anyone asks me why I don’t do monogamy: I can’t rationalise it.

Monogamous people, blindsided with having to question their own hegemonic lifestyle for once, hate that answer. People who would never dream of criticising my other sexual choices (most controversial of which being to sleep with other women) will tell me that I’m being selfish, pretentious and naive: monogamy is human nature.

Alarm bells always ring for me when anyone mentions ‘nature’ in an argument. All kinds of oppressive shit is allowed to fly under the banner of being ‘natural’ – like traditional gender roles and heterosexism – but it’s if something’s ‘unnatural’ then it becomes synonymous with undesirable.

That’s why I steer clear of the ‘born this way’ argument, whilst recognising that being able to do so betrays the relatively privileged position I’m in: there are too many people in the broad church of ‘not-exactly-straight’ who are only surviving on the clemency of a society which (just about) refrains from punishing people for what it thinks they ‘can’t help’.

I can help it: I could not sleep with other women and I’ve been in monogamous relationships. But my current sexual choices are valid regardless.

That doesn’t mean every sexual choice is valid though. For example, I have no time for anyone who peddles ‘child love’ as a sexual orientation that should be tolerated because sexuality is ‘immutable’.

Sexuality, no matter how supposedly immutable, is not above scrutiny and this is where my problem with the ‘sex-positive’ movement comes in.

My problem is not with most common definitions of that movement: any consensual sexual act may well be potentially positive (I struggle to think of a consensual activity that isn’t).

But that doesn’t mean it can’t also be potentially negative.

I’m a sex realist: a lot of sex isn’t positive (but also isn’t rape: a quick example would be someone deciding to have sex – or a particular kind of sex, or sex with a particular person – out of curiosity and not, as it turns out, enjoying it: this can’t just be me). Some people wouldn’t find any sex positive: they’re not ‘missing out on an essential part of being human’, or any of the other nonsense people come out with about sex.

And you know who particularly like to come out with that nonsense? Rape apologists. Rapists ‘can’t help themselves’, their sexual urges are ‘immutable’, it’s just ‘human nature’.

No. We have to own our sexuality and take responsibility for whether we act on its urges. It is not above scrutiny. Our kinks and fetishes and fantasies do not necessarily get a free pass.

You could call this ‘thought control’ or ‘mind policing’ but we actually police our less benign thoughts all the time: if I’m babysitting and get inordinately annoyed with the baby, I remind myself that it’s just a baby. If I catch myself resenting larger people for taking up ‘too much space’, I give myself a mental slap for being a body fascist. If I fantasised about raping someone, I wouldn’t proclaim my ‘right’ to access porn about it.

There’s a difference between fantasies about raping and fantasies about being raped, by the way, even if both fantasies could be aided by the same porn. A gun can also be used for harmless purposes, but I’m still glad we have gun control laws.

A lot of ‘sex-positive’, pro-porn, anything goes campaigners are vehement in their faith that people always keep their sexual fantasies about raping separate from the sex they actually have. But I don’t buy the idea that what goes on inside your mind (also known as thought) has no effect on what you do. After all, a lot of rape does actually happen, and I imagine it’s something rapists think about outside of when they’re doing it.

‘The misogyny’s got to go somewhere’ is another idea I don’t buy (you know, the whole thing about rape porn being an ‘outlet’). I think the misogyny’s got to stop existing.

I’m not saying the government should start prescribing PC fantasies and banning any pornographic imagery that deviates therefrom (although I don’t think anything less than universal access to unlimited porn would spell the end of sexual freedom either: I’m sure people without internet manage fine). But we should question why those most shrilly crying for no-holds-barred access to all the porn they want are loathe to scrutinise the kind of porn that is.

Nothing should be above scrutiny, not even sexuality.

Image of a red and white heart with a blue infinity sign (a symbol of polyamory) by Ratatosk, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments From You

Laura // Posted 30 July 2013 at 9:46 am

Thanks for another really interesting post, Elisa. You (and others reading this) may be interested in the very long comments thread under this post I wrote back in 2009, where the issue of monogamy being seen as “natural” (among other things) is discussed at great length!

On the issue of rape porn, I’ve been astounded to see people who are usually highly critical of elements of rape culture such as victim-blaming and rape jokes defending people’s right to get themselves off to images of women being raped: surely the strongest and most obvious manifestation of this culture. It seems that as soon as an issue becomes about people’s desire for sexual kicks, all analysis goes out the window. I’m personally A-OK with the possession of rape porn becoming illegal: if people really can’t live without it – if people are willing to risk that what they are getting off to may be actual rape, or even just actors grinning and bearing it because they need the money – then I couldn’t care less if they end up with a criminal record.

Elisa // Posted 30 July 2013 at 4:31 pm

Hear hear to your view on rape porn! I also *love* the post you link to! ‘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’. Yes! I don’t want my partners to think they have to abandon me if they feel a chemistry developing between them and someone else and want to act on it, for example. We should question the not-so-unwritten rules we inherit about how to ‘do’ sex and relationships, not just go along with them, especially as so many rules that went unquestioned in the past are now, by the common consensus of most feminists, considered extremely oppressive (like the requirement for female virginity up until marriage, or the not-quite-done-away-with-yet legal protection of marital rape as ‘enforcing your conjugal rights’). You might in practice end up doing monogamy anyway (in practice I’m doing celibacy at the moment, because life), or decide that, having genuinely weighed things up and made an effort to counterbalance the enormous amount of socialisation towards monogamy (and heterosexuality) we all internalised in Western culture, you still want to be monogamous. Fair enough. But we limit ourselves and each other when we just accept these things unquestioningly!

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