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Poly isn’t Necessarily Egalitarian, but Egalitarian is Necessarily Open February 15, 2013

Posted by wfenza in Skepticism and atheism.
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Franklin Veaux, a popular (within the community anyway) writer and activist for polyamory, recently posted about polyamory and ownership:

On another forum I read, someone made a complaint that folks in the poly community tend to see monogamy in terms of ownership and control; that is, for many poly folks, monogamy is about owning your other partner, while polyamory is more egalitarian, treating other people as fully actualized human beings.

And, sadly, I’ve encountered poly folks who do believe that. The misguided notion that polyamory is “more evolved” than monogamy comes, in many cases, from the assumption that monogamy is inherently rooted in ownership and polyamory is inherently egalitarian.

This commits one of my cardinal sins of argument. It’s the same one that got Charlie Jane Anders in so much trouble with the atheist community. Namely – he’s arguing against a point that nobody is making. It’s a special kind of straw man where there is no argument in the first place. You’re just arguing against a vague “other,” in the form of “some people think [unfair paraphrase of argument], but they are all wrong.”

Veaux claims that “some people” think that monogamy is inherently rooted in ownership and polyamory is inherently egalitarian. I know a lot of polyamorous people, I’m on a lot of poly forums, and I read a lot of poly blogs & websites, and I’ve never encountered anyone who believes that. Veaux provided no links or examples of what he’s talking about, so we only have his word that he’s properly interpreted the attitudes of the people he’s met. Let’s just say I have my doubts.

What *I* believe, and what I think all reasonable people must believe, is that a relationship that lives up to Veaux’s definition of egalitarian must necessarily be polyamorous or accidentally monogamous. Veaux is quick to point out that polyamorous relationships can be just as controlling as monogamous relationships (a point with which nobody I know disagrees), but glosses over the fact that his “egalitarian paradigm” is incompatible with traditional monogamy.

The only monogamous egalitarian relationship would look like JT Eberhard’s:

So here’s something I want to throw out there: I don’t care if Michaelyn dates or sleeps with other people. Yet, we are monogamous.
How does that happen? Well, she ha the green light to do those things, but she doesn’t. One day she might. But what I want is to know that she is with me because she wants to be. If Michaelyn is with me exclusively because she wants to be, we don’t need rules binding her to me in that way. If she doesn’t want to be with me in that way, why would I demand she do so? Love, to me, means wanting someone else to be happy, not just happy in a way that caters to me.

While I wouldn’t call this a polyamorous relationship, at the very least it’s “open.” These are two people who truly respect one another and want each other to be happy. This is de facto monogamy, as opposed to de jure (by rule) monogamy, which is what is traditionally practiced.

Now, even a passing familiarity with the BDSM community will teach you that not everyone wants an egalitarian relationship, which is fine. People can want whatever they want, and if they find consenting partners, that’s fantastic. But Veaux’s argument – that poly relationships can by just as controlling as traditionally monogamous relationships – sort of misses the point, which is that de jure monogamous relationships cannot be egalitarian. ALL relationships that qualify as egalitarian under Veaux’s paradigm will be open relationships.

In other words, polyamory is not inherently egalitarian, but all egalitarian relationships must be polyamorous, or at least merely de facto monogamous (and open). This is what people mean when they describe polyamory as “more evolved,” as Veaux put it. It looks like this:

Poly Venn Diagram

I dislike posts like Veaux’s because I truly believe that if society were able to jettison a lot of the assumptions and expectations that lead to traditional monogamy, we would be much happier as a society. Posts like Veaux’s draw a false equivalence between polyamory and monogamy. It focuses on the purple part of the diagram, and ignores the blue part.

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Comments»

1. Aoife O'Riordan - February 16, 2013

I see what you’re trying to say, but I can’t see any convincing argument here for the idea that there can’t be such a thing as a monogamous, egalitarian relationship. Which, especially in a situation where I see egalitarian, monogamous relationships around me all the time, places a rather large burden of proof on you?

Polyamory isn’t inherently egalitarian. However, monogamy similarly isn’t inherently controlling. A monogamous relationship entered into by people who consciously choose monogamy, seek out partners who feel similarly, and who make their desire for monogamy about their own boundaries as opposed to their partner’s actions? Can absolutely be egalitarian.

2. Aoife O'Riordan - February 16, 2013

Oh, by the way- I just realised I’m after jumping straight in with a super-critical comment out of nowhere. So I’m going to add a “hello there”, and the obligatory long-time-reader-who-rather-likes-what-you-say bit.

3. Franklin Veaux - February 26, 2013

Hmm. While I certainly respect your right to offer a critique of my essay, I do feel like you’re ignoring several key points, and misrepresenting what I’m actually trying to say in the process.

First, the straw man argument. You’re correct that I did not provide a link to the claim that “monogamy is about control, polyamory is about egalitarianism”–because the claim was made on a closed Facebook group, so providing a link would have been pointless.

However, I’m a bit surprised that you say you’ve never seen that claim yourself. It’s one I see fairly often, at least in certain segments of the poly community. I see variants of this claim made with some regularity, usually among the New Age/pagan poly parts of the community; is it possible that, as a poly skeptic, you simply don’t tend to associate with those folks?

Regardless, I find the notion that an egalitarian relationship “must” be open to be a bit…questionable. It assumes, I think, that people are generally, by desire or inclination, open to multiple relationships, and it is only non-egalitarian structures that prevent them from expressing that.

The reality, I think, is that there are many folks who, once they’re in a relationship, don’t appear to desire any other relationships; two such people may come together, each saying “as long as I am involved with you, I will not be interested in having other partners,” and end up with a closed relationship–not because each has placed controls or restrictions on the other, but because of decisions each makes for himself or herself.

All that is a bit beside the point, though. The parts of my essay you criticize are, for all intents and purposes, the introduction to the essay. You then say, “I dislike posts like Veaux’s because I truly believe that if society were able to jettison a lot of the assumptions and expectations that lead to traditional monogamy, we would be much happier as a society. Posts like Veaux’s draw a false equivalence between polyamory and monogamy. It focuses on the purple part of the diagram, and ignores the blue part.” You appear not to have continued reading the essay past the introduction; the meat of the essay was about the differences between the purple part of your diagram and the blue part!

For what it’s worth, I agree that if we were able to jettison a lot of the assumptions and expectations that lead to traditional monogamy, we would be much happier as a society. I believe that I’ve communicated that idea quite clearly in a number of essays; I’m a little perplexed about why you raise it as though it were something I’d disagree with.

Regards,
Franklin

4. wfenza - February 26, 2013

Franklin,

Thank you for your response. I’ve read much of your writing, and I generally find myself agreeing heartily with what you say, so I fear that I may have misunderstood some of what you were saying.

On the straw man argument – there’s no need to provide a link, but a quote would have been nice. Generally, when you paraphrase like that, it leaves it open to the reader to make assumptions about what was actually said, and it relies on your audience trusting you to paraphrase accurately. I don’t trust anyone to paraphrase accurately, because we all have blind spots, and giving a quote would have been much more accurate as to what you were arguing against.

I have certainly heard people say things to the effect of “poly is more egalitarian.” My point in this post is that every time I’ve heard that, if I’ve dug a little deeper into what that person actually believes, then it’s not that they believe polyamory is automatically more egalitarian than monogamy. It’s either that they believe that in practice, monogamy tends to favor a more egalitarian relationship structure (which I agree with) or that the most egalitarian relationship will necessarily refrain from having any rules in place about pursuing other relationships (which I also agree with). It’s just that all of that is a bit of a mouthful, and among friends, people may use a phrase like “poly is more egalitarian than monogamy,” but you can’t really know what they mean without going a little deeper. To assume that people are saying “all poly relationships are more egalitarian than all monogamous relationships” is a very unkind, and I think inaccurate, interpretation.

Now we come to the part where I think you may have missed something I said. You said:

The reality, I think, is that there are many folks who, once they’re in a relationship, don’t appear to desire any other relationships; two such people may come together, each saying “as long as I am involved with you, I will not be interested in having other partners,” and end up with a closed relationship–not because each has placed controls or restrictions on the other, but because of decisions each makes for himself or herself.

I agree, that happens all the time. I think that perhaps you may have missed the part where I talked about how a that exact situation (see the quote from JT Eberhard’s blog) is an example of a monogamous relationship that is just as egalitarian as any polyamorous relationship. However, there is one big difference in our interpretations – to me, the situation that you described is not a “closed” relationship. It is merely a relationship where neither partner is seeing anyone else. The parties have not agreed to be monogamous, only communicated their lack of desire in other partners, and offered a prediction about their future desires. There’s a big difference between saying “I will not be interested in having other partners” and saying “I agree never to pursue other partners.” The former is a prediction, and any reasonable party will understand that there is a hefty dose of uncertainty built in to any such prediction. The latter is an agreement, which carries all the controls and restrictions of other monogamous arrangements.

I know that you agree that if we move past our assumptions that lead to traditional monogamy, we would be happier as a society. I do think, however, that a post which implies that polyamory, as a relationship structure, has no inherent advantages over monogamy from a feminist/egalitarian perspective, reinforces those assumptions. It sends the message that, even if we have problems with the controlling and transactional way monogamy traditionally operates, polyamory isn’t really a solution. I agree that it’s important to recognize that polyamory by itself is no solution, but your post seemed to insinuate that polyamory has no advantages over monogamy from an egalitarian perspective.

I don’t think that anything you said in your OP is inaccurate. I just question the usefulness of someone with your level of notoriety sending the message that “polyamory is not necessarily any better” than monogamy in terms of controlling behavior. While the statement is technically true, it is misleading in that it implies that polyamorous people, or the polyamorous community, are not any less controlling than the norm, which is not accurate. The ONLY relationship, based on your descriptions of “controlling” and “egalitarian” (which, for the record, I read very closely before I posted) that qualifies as “egalitarian” is an open relationship (i.e. one that has no rules against additional sexual or romantic partners). Therefore, overall, the poly/open community MUST be, in the aggregate, MORE egalitarian than the traditionally monogamous mainstream. Your OP seemed to gloss over this fact and draw a false equivalence between polyamory and monogamy. 

5. Michael Rios - February 26, 2013

Hi–

Like Franklin, I’ve run into plenty of people who think that polyamory is “more evolved”, or something along that line. These folks don’t tend to hang out on poly lists, I suspect, and when they do make a comment along that line, they are likely to get a number of replies disagreeing with them, with few if any supporters. So the folks who think that, even if they are on a poly list, are less likely to articulate it.

Unfortunately, I can’t give you specific links– though in looking through past posts on one list I’m on, I found more than a dozen posts *denouncing* the idea that polyamory is “more evolved”, without the subject even being raised. So it is no wonder that that perspective rarely if ever shows up on public forums. i did find references to a few posts here and there, but those were also on private lists that can’t be linked to.

But rest assured, that attitude is out there–though I suspect it tends to be more alive in people new to polyamory.

6. Franklin Veaux - February 26, 2013

“I do think, however, that a post which implies that polyamory, as a relationship structure, has no inherent advantages over monogamy from a feminist/egalitarian perspective, reinforces those assumptions. It sends the message that, even if we have problems with the controlling and transactional way monogamy traditionally operates, polyamory isn’t really a solution.”

I see what you’re saying, but I think that it’s important to remember that a person does not automatically get the advantages you’re talking about merely by being polyamorous.

Not all polyamorous relationships are egalitarian. I’ve seen many examples of non-egalitarian poly relationships, and I’m sure you have too. So that leaves the very important point that we do not automatically gain the benefit of letting go of controlling, transactional relationships merely by becoming poly. To let go of those models requires ore than simply saying “OK, we’re not monogamous any more;” what it requires was the subject of the bottom two-thirds of my essay.

In a way, equating “polyamory” with “egalitarianism” and “monogamy” with “controlling, transactional relationships” can lead to a cargo-cult mentality: “Poly people have relationships that are egalitarian and respect agency. Okay, I’m now polyamorous. Woohoo! That means I’m now egalitarian!” And, of course, it doesn’t actually work that way. It’s a bit like saying “Poly people have good communication skills. Okay, I’m now polyamorous. Woohoo! I now have good communication skills!”

Letting go of transactional or control-based relationship structures, like gaining good communication skills, requires work; simply becoming polyamorous won’t do it. Ergo, simply being polyamorous is no guarantee of having the advantages that come with egalitarianism (or good communication, or good conflict-resolution skills, or any of the other things that help make poly relationships function).

7. Franklin Veaux - February 26, 2013

“But rest assured, that attitude is out there–though I suspect it tends to be more alive in people new to polyamory.”

I beling to at least one list, the World Polyamory Association list, where the idea that polyamory IS inherently “more evolved” than monogamy has been raised on several occasions, largely without dissent. I do strongly believe that this varies with the particular portion of the poly community one finds one’s self in.

8. wfenza - February 26, 2013

I agree 100% with what you’ve said here. I just feel like writing a whole post about that without mentioning that “oh yeah, by the way, if you actually want an egalitarian relationship, then you can’t have a monogamy agreement” is a pretty big thing to leave out.

9. dapperanarchist - March 8, 2013

I think I was, at the time, on the same private group Franklin is referring to, or at least I was on a group that Franklin was on and that contained several people who thought Poly was either “more evolved” or that not-poly was deeply unnatural (a group founder told someone to read more zoology if they thought it was ok to be monogamous – ie, that 1) zoology would teach them otherwise and 2) that zoology tells you all you need to know about HUMAN behaviour.). One person on that group said that monogamy was rape, because it involved a control of consent. I stayed there far too long really… It was when the MRAs and Masculinists started to appear I left.

10. What Is an Egalitarian Relationship? | Boredom Breeds Contempt - March 31, 2013

[...] yesterday I was exploring new blogs and I ran across a blog written by a polyamorous, skeptical, atheist family. Needless to say, I was pretty excited. This [...]

11. blackbyrd - April 28, 2014

So. Monogamy is only egalitarian as long as it is by accident, temporary, and not formalized by agreement.
Meanwhile, poly is generally conducted by agreement and those agreements are often formalized. And that is still egalitarian? And more egalitarian than monogamous agreements?
How is a monogamy agreement less egalitarian/more controlling than an economic agreement? Or an agreement about co-parenting? It seems only this one kind of agreement is considered inherently non-egalitarian, and I dont understand why.

12. Anonymous - May 12, 2014

THOROUGHLY REFUTED:

You’re completely wrong that egalitarianism is necessarily non-monogamous. The two have nothing to do with each other. All relationships come together by an agreement. The nature of that agreement is what defines the relationship as egalitarian or not.

This agreement could include sexual exclusivity. It is ONLY non-egalitarian if one member has the freedom to have sex with other people and the other does not.

This seems pretty elementary. In respect to your intelligence, I hope to have missed something in your post. Otherwise, you’re proposing something contrary to human nature; that humans are to never have agreements, commitments, or formalized expectations of one another, at all.


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