by Angi Becker Stevens and Alex Upham, also published at afreesociety.org
Within feminist circles, there has been a movement in recent years to reframe our notion of consent, moving away from a passive “no means no” model wherein consent is a lack of resistance, toward a “yes means yes” model of active, empowered consent. Proponents of this model of consent offer invaluable insights into how our personal relationships can be transformed, and in particular into the ways in which women can and must be sexually liberated and empowered. But they often fail to articulate a broader vision and strategy for deconstructing the coercive forces at work in our society. We propose that in order to realize a truly liberated sexuality, the model of active consent must be applied not only to our personal interactions, but to our interactions with society as well. A truly liberated sexuality is one in which all aspects of our sexual identities—from our gender expression to our specific nuanced fetishes and desires, from our sexual orientation to our choice of which (if any) sexual acts we wish to engage in—are a result of active consent, not a result of passive submission to the coercive structures of society.
The word "choice" appears frequently in debates about sexuality, as if our desires can exist only on the extreme ends of a continuum between purely biological inborn traits and frivolous choices. We believe this absolutist notion of biology vs. choice is a false dichotomy, and that the origins of our sexuality–like so many other things we consider an intrinsic part of who we are–need not be reduced to the purely biological in order to be given respect and validation. Regardless of how our sexual identities are constructed–whatever combination of "nature" and "nurture" might be responsible for forming our unique combinations of desires and preferences–we can think of our behavior in terms of active consent.
Whether we're thinking about the queer movement or any other sexually marginalized group, applying a model of consent offers a way out of the choice vs. biology debate, offering instead a model for valuing and respecting a variety of sexualities regardless of their origins.
There are, however, a multitude of ways in which social institutions interfere with our ability to actively consent. Any institution that upholds any particular form of sexuality as ideal, and privileges it as such, in turn acts as a coercive force, pressing individuals to comply with that ideal. The same can be said of political and economic institutions which privilege one form of sexuality with various benefits and write-offs. We can hardly be said to be actively consenting when only one option is considered valid, ideal, or "good." In order to better understand consent it is important to look at some of the systemic roots of coercion in our lives. In this essay we will be exploring the way these coercive forces act to create a culture of compulsory monogamy. While we have chosen to focus on this specific issue, however, we hope this example offers a model of consent which can be applied to all aspects of sexuality.
Compulsory Monogamy and the Nuclear Family
Compulsory monogamy obviously plays a role in our family structures, helping to define the isolated nuclear family unit. But it also functions to reinforce specific, gendered roles within those family units. Our concepts of the roles and responsibilities of "mother" and "father" are dependent on a monogamous, heteronormative assumption that families include one man and one woman. Opponents of adoption rights for gay couples argue that children "need" both a male and female parent, but ignore the fact that the tasks commonly associated separately with the roles of "mother" and "father" are not in any way intrinsically inherent to one gender or the other, but merely patriarchal notions of what the role of each individual within the family should be. There is no reason why, even in a heterosexual context, these roles cannot be reversed or, even more preferable, distributed more equitably between the parents. Non-monogamous families have the potential to deconstruct some of these strict roles by sharing child-rearing amongst a group, removing the rigid definitions of "mother" and "father." But rather than seeing how children can thrive in situations where they are loved and cared for by a larger network of adults, our society often assumes that any non-monogamous family environment must be harmful to children. Presumably this results from the extreme focus people often place on sex when considering non-monogamy; there is an assumption that children in polyamorous homes are being exposed to sexuality in an unhealthy way. The reality, of course, is that children in such situations are no more exposed to the sex lives of their parents than children in monogamous environments are. There is often concern, too, about the stability of such environments–as if a non-monogamous family structure automatically results in partners constantly coming and going from the home, and as if the monogamous nuclear family is inherently stable. Children of monogamous relationships often experience multiple divorces, or the partners of a single parent coming in and out of their lives. If anything, the network created by having more adults serving parental roles in a child's life has the potential to offer even more of a support system when and if some kind of change does occur. And regardless of whether the adults within a household are romantically involved with one another, taking a communal, “it takes a village” approach to child-rearing can help to reduce the tension that often exists between parents’ desire to remain at home with small children and their desire to pursue their own careers, interests, and passions outside of the home. When a family is composed of more than just two adults, it becomes more conceivable for everyone to equitably divide time spent on childcare with time spent on personal pursuits without relying on costly and often impersonal institutional daycare. Unfortunately, our society offers little support for such arrangements. Even as we move toward granting blended, step-families increasing validity, that validation is still predicated on the requirement that parents re-marry, creating a new monogamous unit. The same societal validation is not extended to intentionally chosen families with a non-monogamous structure. Parents who choose non-monogamous relationships face not only condemnation, but also the risk of losing custody of their children, particularly in situations where the child’s other birth parent chooses monogamy.
Upholding Traditional Gender Roles
Compulsory monogamy’s enforcement of gender roles does not only effect individuals within the family environment, but contributes to a larger societal concept of the differences between–and appropriate roles for–men and women. These concepts of difference are in turn acted out in a patriarchal manner, placing men in a dominant role over women. The idea that gender even is a strict binary in the first place is reinforced and upheld in part by the expectation of monogamy; from childhood onward our fairy-tale notions of the role of the prince vs. the role of the princess helps to shape our notions of what ideal "men" and "women" should be. Our interactions within romantic relationships are often heavily driven by socially constructed gender roles: stereotypes that women are passive and men are assertive, assumptions about disparity between male and female sex drives, and gendered expectations about each individual's desires and goals within a relationship–she wants to settle down and start a family, he wants his independence; she wants to be protected and provided for, he wants to feel capable of being a provider, etc.–form a huge influence on the ways both men and women behave within relationships. And while many of these male/female dichotomies might sound out-dated, there is still a large market for dating advice, with books like The Rules and He's Just Not That Into You relying on gender-specific models of how people–especially women–are to behave in order to achieve "success" in relationships. In this way, compulsory monogamy serves to police not only our gender roles, but potentially even our gender identification itself. Monogamous relationships do not necessarily prohibit freedom of gender expression. But the institution of compulsory monogamy, with its heavy emphasis on the roles and expectations of men and women within relationships, helps to reinforce hegemonic standards of masculinity and femininity and how gender expression should conform to biological sex. When we free ourselves from the notion of being someone’s “other half,” we create more potential for the freedom of movement across the gender spectrum.
Love and Marriage?
Aside from the gendered dynamics that are enforced by compulsory monogamy, there are also expectations that carry equal weight for both sexes, in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships. Expectations are not always negative, in the case of basic expectations that we treat our partners with respect and offer some amount of emotional support and affection. But compulsory monogamy creates an expectation that we be all things for another person. People are taught to seek “the one,” a person who will fulfill us in all ways—romantically, sexually, intellectually, and otherwise—for the rest of our lives. If we happen to love someone who meets some of our needs but not others, compulsory monogamy offers only two options: either end that relationship in the hope of finding a different partner who is a “better” match, or resign ourselves to having some of our needs or desires unmet. The possibility of adding an additional partner while remaining with the other who we already love and have a largely satisfying relationship with is not presented as an option. Likewise, if someone has been with a partner for many years building a life and family together, and then suddenly finds him or herself developing feelings for a new romantic interest, he or she is left with equally unappealing options: either break up an otherwise happy family, or suppress the desire for and break the connection with the new love interest. We are not told that we can develop meaningful and rewarding relationships with new loves while keeping our family intact. On the contrary, sexual fidelity is given such high priority within romantic relationships that the mere experience of finding ourselves attracted to another person is often enough to make us question whether we “really” love our partner in the way that (society dictates) we should.
Thanks to the depth of our social conditioning toward compulsory monogamy, it’s common to feel skeptical about the possibility of having genuine romantic feelings for more than one person simultaneously—even for the individuals who are experiencing these feelings themselves. People often ask, “Why should anyone be entitled to more than one romantic and/or sexual partner? Isn’t this just wanting to have your cake and eat it too?” We would ask instead: why shouldn’t people be entitled to more than one romantic and/or sexual partner if that’s what they desire? We don’t consider someone selfish for needing or desiring other friendships, interests, and activities outside of his or her relationship—in fact, most of us would tend to view it as problematic if an individual had absolutely no interests or social network outside of a romantic relationship. So why should additional intimate relationships be any different? If an individual’s time spent, say, doing volunteer work or playing a sport independently of his or her partner is seen as positive, unselfish, and healthy, why must time spent engaging in another fulfilling relationship with a human being be inherently impermissible?
In a world with such staggering rates of divorce and infidelity—not to mention the untold number of individuals languishing in less-than-completely-fulfilling relationships—it is worth questioning whether lifelong monogamy is actually a realistic expectation for most people. For some people, a succession of temporary but exclusive relationships—often referred to as “serial monogamy”—offers a kind of solution to changing needs and desires. But serial monogamy is predicated on the assumption that we always stop loving and desiring one partner when we begin loving another. Compulsory monogamy also relies on the notion that a serial-monogamous lifestyle is temporary and often associated with youth; these relationships are viewed as trial periods wherein we “audition” potential life partners, with the ultimate goal always being to find the one to “settle down” with. And in that same vein, serial monogamy typically does not feel like a very appealing option for an individual who does wish to “settle down” and build a family, especially once children come into the picture.
When we commit ourselves to someone for life, we often fail to fully take into account the degree to which we grow and change over periods of ten, twenty, or thirty years. Of course, sometimes people grow and change in ways which are simply not compatible, and in some cases separation becomes an inevitability regardless of whether there is an expectation of monogamy. But oftentimes people feel torn between still loving and desiring an existing partner, while also desiring more than one romantic relationship in the course of such a long span of time. Compulsory monogamy creates a lose-lose situation in which there appears to be no possibility of negotiating alternatives. And while we do not by any means condone or endorse dishonest infidelity, we do have some degree of sympathy for those who, under the weight of societal pressures, give into the temptation of cheating, seeing it as the only possible way to reconcile two supposedly opposing desires. When it does occur, this kind of infidelity is generally vilified more extremely than any other transgression possible in a romantic relationship. And while we recognize that some people cheat because they enjoy doing something “wrong,” we believe that many people in these situations have no desire to hurt their partners. In a world where people have more freedom to openly and honestly acknowledge their desires, the pain and suffering now caused by infidelity within the current structure would be greatly reduced.
One of the most commonly offered objections to the feasibility of non-monogamous romantic relationships is the concept of jealousy. Jealousy is given validation as a perfectly “natural” and unavoidable emotional response to the thought of a romantic partner engaging in physically or emotionally intimate behaviors with others outside of that partnership. Blame for jealousy is rarely placed on the person feeling it, but instead on the person “causing” jealousy in their partner; only in rare cases do people view jealousy as being unwarranted, excessive, or unprovoked. Jealousy is in turn used to make otherwise unsavory behavior permissible; our society often condones possessive and controlling behavior when such behavior is motivated by a desire “to defend one’s territory.” While we commonly reject the idea that one human being has a right to any kind of ownership over another in contexts such as the workplace or an educational institution, we generally take for granted at least some degree of ownership in romantic relationships. How frequently do we hear phrases such as “my woman” or “my man,” particularly with regard to the notion of “protecting our property” from the intrusion of a third party? Even in otherwise relatively egalitarian relationships, this possessiveness is generally seen as acceptable and warranted when there is a perceived threat of infidelity. In the context of compulsory monogamy, jealousy acts as a sort of trump card: Love, society tells us, means willingly refraining from anything that makes our partner feel discomfort and insecurity. This line of thinking grants one partner control not only over their partner’s actual romantic interests, but also over anything he or she suspects could lead to such interests: certain friendships or social environments, hobbies and interests undertaken in a group setting, even workplace- or school-related activities. Regardless of an individual’s actual desire for other romantic relationships, the micro-management enacted by a jealous partner can make true autonomy impossible.
Additionally, in a heterosexual context, jealousy often—though not always–takes on a gendered double standard. While women tend to more often be stereotyped as jealous, they are also frequently warned not to appear too smothering or possessive of a man, and so are often likely to resist any attempt to control a male partner’s behavior. Women are also frequently blamed for their partner’s real or perceived infidelities, and might therefore be more likely to internalize their jealousy as insecurity. Men, on the other hand, receive much more societal approval for the idea that it is their right to control their female partners’ behavior, and male jealousy is far more likely to escalate to physical violence. Though our society might not widely condone violence itself, there is still some acceptance of the idea that strong enough jealousy can cause a man to “snap,” rendering his violent behavior beyond his control. And our society does commonly condone male control of and dominance over women in the name of jealousy, in spite of the fact that such dominance is often implicitly threatening and frequently a precursor to actual violence.
Though it’s easy to see how destructive jealousy can be within a relationship, we tend to accept it as inherent to our nature; the existence of jealousy is even offered as evidence of the theory that we are “designed” for monogamy. But it is worth considering the possibility that jealousy is actually a product of compulsory monogamy: could jealousy exist in a world where we were not made to feel as though our romantic partners were in fact our property? Individuals in non-monogamous relationships are not necessarily able to easily “turn off” all feelings of jealousy; it’s always difficult to divorce ourselves completely from something we’ve been socially conditioned for since birth. But non-monogamous relationships do require that we choose to deal with jealousy differently. People in non-monogamous relationships often find that it is possible to ask our partners for the reassurance we need within the relationship, without asking or expecting that they alter their behavior outside of the relationship. We reject the idea that any emotion gives one individual the right to exert possession and control over another.
Monogamy plays a very real role not only in the ways which people relate within their romantic relationships, but also in the ways in which people relate to and interact with their communities. In our sexually repressive culture, sexuality is the object of both fear and fixation. Children are raised to be uncomfortable with their own sexuality rather than empowered to reach their own conclusions. Sexuality plays a role in how others, outside of one's sexual or romantic relationships, interact with that person. For example, if a person is thought to be promiscuous it can have numerous effects on that person's reputation in a community. And if a person known to be married or otherwise romantically attached is seen with another partner, the damage to their reputation might be even worse. Even when public policy evolves to accommodate a wider variety of relationships, stigma against “unconventional” relationships often remains in the community. For example, interracial relationships found legal recognition in the 1960s, but remain largely stigmatized today. Many religions denounce anything other than the strictest forms of monogamy, leaving other people estranged from a very important aspect of their lives. Married couples are expected by neighbors and their larger communities to act in certain ways, to attend certain social events together or separately. Politicians and celebrities are constantly scrutinized for any alternative sexuality, and their sex lives are made into some indication of how they will serve the community as a leader or icon. Children may be ridiculed by other children, community members, even close personal mentors for the unorthodoxy of their parents' relationships.
We hear the phrase “preserving family values” all the time, and yet logically this could mean anything. Most often it is an attack against anything that lies outside of the traditional nuclear family structure which acts in a similar fashion. Gay marriage has been cited as a force against family values, just as any non-monogamous arrangement has. In rejecting compulsory monogamy we do not reject the nuclear family, we may even arrive at that point. The only difference is that monogamy should be something we actively consent to in how we create families. There can be more than one way of relating to one's community than through a rigidly defined family structure.
Even the day to day language we use enforces compulsory monogamous relationships. For example, there is no word for my girlfriend's in-laws, but there easily could be (I propose “nonlaws”). Even the words that we use to refer to others; “girlfriend,” “husband,” “fuck buddy,” all come with clear connotations. “Girlfriend” and “husband” are both thought widely to connote exclusivity, whereas “fuck buddy” connotes the opposite. We know, logically, that this needn't be the case, there can be exclusive or inclusive varieties of any of these relations. And yet, language, without a long list of qualifiers, sets up such preconceived notions about our relationships. Language functions in a hegemonic fashion, such that people's preconceived notions work to transform their perceptions of such relationships, and even of their own roles within relationships. People often try to define themselves in terms of their own notion of what a “girlfriend,” “boyfriend,” “husband,” or “wife” is supposed to be. Such labels can be useful for simply identifying someone as a romantic partner. But when we attempt to model our behavior in accordance with the ideals associated with those labels, the labels become oppressive rather than merely descriptive. Furthermore, language can even go so far as to limit perceptions of what relationships can possibly be. If there isn't a word for it, it must not exist. Many may use the word “fuck buddy” with a certain air of contempt, but even acknowledging the structure's existence relocates the relationship into a possible dialogue. Many sexual minorities have had to battle with just the notion of their existence. First gay people didn't exist, then they were abominations of nature, then they were sick in the head, only recently has the word “gay” started to come into our cultural language without unnecessary negative connotations, and still we're a long way off.
The Economics and Politics of Compulsory Monogamy
In the economic and political spheres of social life, the current framework both supports and is supported by compulsory monogamy. The very institution of legal marriage as we know it today is actually in large part an economic rather than a romantic construction, built around concerns of inheritance and property ownership. Most of us are aware that a multitude of economic privileges are granted to married couples. But this privileging is problematic not only because of the rights it denies non-monogamous groups, but also—and perhaps even more importantly—because it functions to uphold compulsory monogamy. Granting a higher status to one specific relationship structure helps to define that structure as the only reasonable choice possible. For individuals who are not fulfilled within a monogamous context, the belief that there is no alternative leaves them feeling trapped and unable to live authentically, much like non-heterosexual men and women in a culture of compulsory heterosexuality. Take, for example, the nuclear family. Through various economic and political institutions the nuclear family is put on a pedestal. People who are otherwise happy living together, may feel pressured or enticed to marry in order to receive tax write-offs and other benefits. In this way, as in so many others, government and economy play a coercive role in telling people how to live their lives, manage their resources, and define their sexuality.
Toward a Non-Coercive Sexuality
We envision a society not in which monogamy is obsolete, but in which it is seen as only one possible relationship structure among many, and in which any relationship structure is entered into as the result of deliberate, active consent. We envision a society in which individuals form intimate relationships and shape their roles within those relationships out of authentic needs and desires rather than as a result of pressures to conform to a predetermined model, and where self-reflectivity with regard to the way we form relationships is encouraged rather than discouraged. In this society, people will be educated and empowered to make sexual decisions based on the safety, consent, and desire of all parties involved rather than based on an externally imposed morality. We envision a society where value is placed on the development of authentic sexualities.
We envision a society in which all families—whether connected by blood, by choice, or some synthesis—are given equal consideration and validity. The roles of the individuals within these families will not be determined by gender, but will instead be formed in a way that equitably balances the needs of the family as a whole with the needs and desires of each individual.
We envision a society in which sexual fluidity is permitted and embraced rather than feared, in which we recognize that an individual’s needs and desires with regard to sexual orientation, gender identification, relationship structure, and relationships with specific partners are not necessarily static, but are capable of changing throughout the course of one’s lifetime. Acceptance of fluidity and change needn’t mean treating relationships as disposable or temporary; on the contrary, it means embracing an expansive definition of “commitment.” In this context, commitment doesn’t have to mean a promise that our needs or desires will never change, but can instead mean a promise to navigate these changes openly and honestly with our partners when and if they do occur, and likewise to offer our partners the kind of support they request when facing such changes of their own.
Finally, we envision a society that treats all forms of consensual romantic relationships equally, without giving economic or political privilege or priority based on the structure of a relationship. We envision a society in which polyamorous and non-monogamous groups are granted the same respect and consideration as monogamous pairs.
In order to realize this vision, we must fully recognize monogamy as something to be consented to, not coerced into. It is difficult, but not impossible, to begin considering and creating alternative structures for our relationships and families even within the context of our current society. But in order for relationship structures to be radically re-imagined on a lasting and widespread scale, support for a variety of consensual choices must exist in all areas of society. In our policy we should be attempting to rework or abolish current legislation which privileges certain relationship structures over others. We should seek to form alliances with marginalized social and sexual groups. Within our community we should challenge our own assumptions about other relationship forms as well as speak out against groups which fail to accommodate alternative structures. We must work consciously to break down our own deeply imprinted ideas that love inherently equals monogamy, and that jealousy is justified and unavoidable. We should also explore new ways of forming groups and sharing resources, and appreciate those who already have.