There’s a guest post at Friendly Atheist by Todd Stiefel, criticizing the wording of some proposed harassment policies. It’s clear that Stiefel isn’t seeking to minimize the problem of harassment, or argue against the adoption of harassment policies, but only to make specific criticisms of points where he feels they need tweaking.
Overall I agree with his points: he mentions one thing in particular that I had noted, which is that some policies prohibit “unwanted sexual attention,” without specifying what that means: is asking someone for a date if they’re not interested unwanted sexual attention? Technically, I’d say it is, and yet I think asking someone for a date shouldn’t necessarily be prohibited. The addendum he suggests makes the boundary much clearer.
His criticisms seemed so reasonable to me that I was surprised that the first several comment responses I read were negative. The objections were all along the lines of, “Well obviously no one’s going to go running to the conference organizers if someone just asks them on a date or pats them innocently on a shoulder… and to say otherwise implies that women are irrational.” They seemed to be in agreement that the purpose of a harassment policy was to serve as a safety net, so that if something does happen that makes someone uncomfortable, they have someone to turn.
I disagree, and I said so in a comment, but wanted to make a wider response. Harassment policies are there as a safety net, yes, but I don’t think that is, or should be, their only purpose. The other purpose should be to set clear norms and boundaries for what is considered appropriate behavior. I think this is important for three reasons.
– First, as JT Eberhard illustrated a while back, some people have a hard time grasping social rules that aren’t explicitly laid out. I have a mild version of this impairment myself, and a lot of sympathy for those with the more difficult versions. Some people really do work better, and with much less anxiety, when it’s spelled out: This is what you can do, this is what you can’t do.
– Second, some people claim to have this impairment as an excuse to not give a shit how their behavior affects other people. Having accurate guidelines, that we actually expect people to follow, takes away the excuse from these people, while it helps the sincere and well-meaning folks above.
– Third, I really really hate rules that everybody knows aren’t meant to be followed literally most of the time. Please tell me I’m not alone on this. They can function as a nasty kind of trap, wherein somebody who’s behaving perfectly according to the accepted norms can get tagged for breaking a rule — one of those rules that nobody follows. Maybe that’s because they’ve, wittingly or unwittingly, crossed an unspoken boundary. Or maybe it’s because somebody in the group doesn’t like them and sees an opportunity to get them on a technicality. It’s just not to anybody’s benefit to create an elaborate list of rules, then expect everybody to function by a different, more relaxed set of rules under most circumstances. As Wes (who’s sitting right behind me) says, “When you make rules that you don’t expect people to follow, you breed contempt for the system.”
I recently returned from a sesshin, a multi-day Buddhist retreat. That may be an odd way to start a post on an atheist blog, but between the sesshin and conversations I’ve had recently with Shaun, Alex and a good friend who has a doctorate in religious studies, I’ve been thinking a lot about what religion is and what exactly it means for me to be an atheist.
There is no doubt that Buddhism is, for many people and governments, a religion. it is certainly treated that way in America, where it has (at least officially) the same protected status as other religions. However, it is equally true that for many practitioners, including myself, Buddhism is not a religion, but a philosophy. Stephen Batchelor is only the most outspoken of those arguing that the Buddha was not a religious leader but a social activist. Western Buddhism has fused psychotherapy and neuroscience to the practices of meditation and the outlook Buddhism espouses.
Buddhism has always been based in what Judson Brewer, in a recent Buddhist Geeks podcast, called “evidence based faith.” Early sutras record the Buddha saying that no one should follow him based on faith alone, but that everyone should test his ideas and if they are not useful, or if someone finds something better, the ideas should be discarded. The Dali Lama has said that if science disproves any of the claims of Buddhist belief, it is Buddhism that must change, not science. So I feel quite comfortable saying I am a Buddhist atheist.
That’s not the point of this post however, because that’s a well understood point and not worth a whole separate post. However, at the sesshin, I took part in jukai, the Zen ceremony of transmitting and accepting the precepts. I did a lot of bowing. I promised to uphold the precepts. There was group chanting. Afterwards, Alex, who was there as a guest, later said he was a bit uncomfortable with the “cult-like” atmosphere at times. It made me think seriously about why I am comfortable with chanting and bowing and rules in the context of Zen Buddhism and not in the context of Catholicism or Islam. Having though seriously, here are my conclusions.
First, there are many aspects of religion that I see as neutral or even positive, especially creating community and allowing space to contemplate big questions like “what is the meaning of life.” And, interestingly, if you ask someone with an MA in philosophy or a PhD in religious studies what the definition of religion is, they are much more likely to talk about the actions a religion performs than the doctrines or beliefs about gods (here’s where I should totally have links to some of the definitions my friend mentioned, but we were in the car for the conversation and I was driving so I didn’t write any of the names down).
It was during the last of these conversations that I realized I am, very literally, an atheist. That is, I am against god, or the concept of god. I’m not really against “religion” per say, because I think it’s a big, amorphous idea that is hard to define. But I am absolutely against the idea of a God especially as presented by the big three monotheistic religions , for two very specific reasons.
1. This view of God locates morality outside the human realm and that is dangerous.
The all powerful god who sets up rules of conduct which are outside of context and time removes responsibility for individual humans to thoughtfully evaluate complex situations and decide what the best response is. I’ve had the common experience of atheists, being asked by a religious person why I bothering being “good” if I don’t believe in god. I find this question deeply frightening because what it says about the questioner is that the only reason that person is ethical is fear of not getting into heaven. No compassion for others, or an innate sense of fairness and justice or a belief in the social contract. Just fear of hellfire. That is not someone I want teaching my kids (if I had any) or running my government!
2. God is resolutely irrational
God is deliberately and explicitly about faith–the non-rational trust in something that not only cannot be rationally proven, but must not be. If god can be contained by rationality, if god must obey the laws of the universe, if god can be proven, then god’s power is severely diminished if not broken entirely. The point of god is to be beyond human understanding, so that things that don’t make sense to us (why bad things happen to good people, for example), we can take comfort in the belief that god has a plan and it is good.
For me, god is a dangerous concept, because it locates decision making and consequences outside of the human sphere and pretends there can be absolute right and wrong, good and evil. When this is translated into the realm of public policy, civil rights, education and sexuality, it must necessarily cause suffering, because the human world is not absolute.
So I’m fine bowing and chanting at the retreat. I’m fine with religion. What I’m not at all fine with is god. I am an atheist.
So, I was a bit of a math nerd back in the day. Things have changed, but I still love things like this:
So, happy Tau day!
(H/T Hemant Mehta, which is an anagram for ‘Thee Math Man’)
So, I read the comments on reddit. I know, I know, comments are the realm of trolls and other unpleasant beings, but when we post things there, I’m curious what people have to say.
Click on over if you want to read the comments there at reddit, as some of them are not terrible, but what I want to highlight was my latest reply to one commenter, which I think is worth posting on its own.
The issue is whether polyamory can be thought of as a choice or not. Many people feel like polyamory is an orientation; they feel compelled to be polyamorous (to not be exclusively sexual/romantic). This was my comment:
Of course, my opinion may differ from that of Wes (the author of the OP, but we both write for that blog), but I can address some of this.
I think that the hard distinction between choice and orientation is not the best model to use here, and I don’t think Wes meant it as a digital relationship. My post, which is linked to in his, claims that the orientation part comes in either being interested in intimacy (sexual, emotional, etc) with varying kinds and quantities of people. Who, and how many, people you are interested in maintaining relationships with is not something you choose, and can be described as an orientation.
But you have some choice about how to act on your inclinations. So, you can choose to have a mono relationship and cheat (or not), stay single and sleep around (or not), maintain multiple relationships with sexual contact with many people (or not), etc. The distinction is between the inclination, the desire, and the deciding how to act on it. For people who want to live authentically, the desire leads to an act (done ethically), and so they don’t really see the distinction because it flows so naturally.
I get that for many people what distinguishes poly from mono is the inclusion of sexuality in relationships. I get that some people simply cannot imagine being exclusively sexual with one person. I get that it feels like an orientation. It feels that way to me too. But when I examine the idea of what polyamory is, I have to recognize that there is a difference between my inclination (my ability to love many people, including sexually) and my acting on it. Polyamory is not coterminous with the desire (the orientation) itself, but is an expression of that desire.
The desire is the orientation. The distinction here is that when I willingly enter into relationships with people to express this desire; that’s polyamory. Now in some ways this is not really a choice; we feel compelled to do so, but it is an act, based upon a related orientation.
That feeling of being oriented towards sexuality, emotional intimacy, etc with many people, the thing that makes being mono seem impossible, is not the polyamory part per se. The polyamory comes in when we decide, or are compelled, to act of our inclinations openly, transparently, etc.
I think that Wes agrees with this distinction, and whether he does or not, I think the distinction is important. I am not sure that people who “reddit” always read closely enough to pick up such ideas.
Which is why I think it should be skimmit.com….
I began writing a response in the comments section of Wes’ recent post, and it fairly quickly spiraled out of control and into something that probably should be a post in its own right, so I’ve decided just to post it. But I have a couple of caveats:
1) I’m a bit concerned that we’re overloading the blog with one discussion. While I think it’s an important discussion to have, and one that is not being had much in the polyamory community, I know we also like to write (and you, dear reader, like to read) about other topics.
2) I don’t want to create (or perpetuate) the kind of rhetorical cycle of assertion, counter-assertion, attack, and defense that can sometimes sidetrack discussions, especially on the interwebs. On the other hand, Wes’ post (for me at least) further problematized this issue, and I’d like to explore how/why I think it did so.
3) I disagree with a lot of what Wes said, and I’d like to be clear on where, and more importantly why, I think his argument could be stronger. The problem with arguments about semantics is that they tend to devolve into arguments over definitions. This can be interesting as a purely rhetorical exercise, but I’m not sure it always leads to greater understanding. I have challenged some of Wes’ definitions, just as he challenged some of mine, Shaun’s, Loving More’s, etc. And if Wes wanted to respond to this post, he could certainly parse the definitions of my definitions. This can go on reductio ad absurdum. I really don’t want that to happen.
At the core of Wes’ criticism is his three part statement:
Polyamory is not sexual….polyamory is not an orientation….being poly is nothing like being GLB.
I think he is wrong on all three counts here.
1a) It’s a mistake to disqualify “sexual” because the definitions of polyamory do not mention sex. Isn’t sex implicit in the terms “romantic” and “intimate”? I’m not saying that all intimate/romantic relationships must be sexual, but sex is one of the things that tends to differentiate what we call romantic/intimate relationships from other relationships. If this weren’t the case, we wouldn’t need the word “polyamory” to describe a different class of relationships than, say, intimate but platonic friendships.
Under Wes’ definition of polyamory (“relationships, honesty, and intimacy”), all but the most closed relationships would essentially be polyamorous, thus rendering the word nearly meaningless. Or, to put it slightly differently, monogamous people also have multiple loves. They love their siblings, for example. or their children. We all acknowledge that “loving” is the proper word to use for these relationships. The type of love that is not permitted in monogamous relationships is “romantic” love, which is usually erotic/sexual in nature. If we’re going to have a separate category to describe polyamory, it has to describe something other than relationships that already exist.
1b) The other problem with focusing on the word “sexual” in “sexual orientation”–and now I’m taking the opposite position to the position I took in 1a (which is a problem with semantic arguments, as I said in my introduction)–is that many people object to the idea that one’s orientation/preference be described primarily in terms of sex. Wes said that sexual orientation “until recently was used almost exclusively to mean the sex and/or gender to whom a person is attracted.” The “until recently” part is important. One of the reasons the term “sexual orientation” has ceased being primarily a description of sexual (i.e. libidinal) desire is that focusing exclusively on the sex (i.e. what we do) neglects other important elements of the state of being the term “sexual orientation” sought to define (i.e. who we are). The APA’s definition clearly considers both “sense of identity” and “membership in a community of others” as important elements of sexual identity.
This cuts both ways. If we can’t qualify people for a certain sexual orientation for not having certain libidinal desires, we can’t disqualify people for having them. In other words, we can’t say polyamory is not an orientation because it’s not about the sex.
2) Wes’ analysis used one definition of “orientation” to the exclusion of others. As I pointed out, one definition of the word is “choice or adjustment of associations, connections, or dispositions.” That has nothing to do with “physical desire.” But I’d also argue that for some people, polyamory is a physical desire. How would we categorize someone who was only attracted to couples, or groups of people, for example? They wouldn’t fit our usual definitions of hetero, homo, or bisexual, and even pansexual wouldn’t exactly fit. We would have a different way to describe their sexual desire, and polyamorous might fit well there. I realize, of course, that this is an extreme example, and such attraction is probably exceedingly rare, but wouldn’t we have to say that such a person had a poly orientation?
Or what about someone who wants a d/s relationship? They may not have a gender preference for their partner, and they may not want a sexual relationship (or not a primarily sexual one anyway), but they absolutely need their partner to be dominant and they want to be submissive. I think it would be correct to call this an orientation, even a sexual orientation, even though one’s “object” of desire does not fit into our traditional models (hetero, homo, bi, pan, etc.). I realize that I may be stretching the definition of “orientation” nearly to its breaking point, as I did with “sexual” above, but that’s essentially my point. These definitions are slippery precisely because their constituent parts are not easy to define clearly, and because romance, intimacy, and sexuality are extremely complicated ideas that resist easy categorization.
3a) I don’t think it’s a good idea to say that “Being GLB is about the type of person to whom you are sexually attracted.” LGBT people have worked very hard over the few decades to dispel the perception that it’s all about “teh gay sex.” Surely for many people it’s partially (or even mostly) about the gay sex, but I think we all pretty universally agree now that when we say someone is heterosexual, homosexual, etc. we’re not just talking about the people with whom they have sex (or want to have sex). So while it may be true that polyamory is not the same as sexual orientation when we consider the number of partners polys seek, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that polyamory is similar in kind to what we’ve traditionally called sexual orientation when it comes to disposition toward those partners. Wes said that using the language of the LGBT community implied a false equivalence. I disagree. I don’t think poly and other orientations are exactly equivalent, but I think it’s fruitful to examine the ways in which they may be similar.
3b) If socio-political gain is polyamorists’ primary goal, I really don’t think aligning ourselves with the LBGT community could fairly be described as an attempt to “coopt the sympathy that the GLBT community has built up.” How much sympathy is that? Is it really politically useful? Discrimination against LGBT people is still rampant in the U.S. And to the extent that we practice non-normative lovestyles, I think that we ought to align ourselves with the LGBT movement, not because it’s politically expedient but because we have affinity with them. Polyamory queers relationships norms in much the same way that being gay, pansexual, transsexual, etc. queers gender/sex norms. I don’t think that’s a false equivalence at all.
I’m not sure anyone would say that polyamory is absolutely a sexual orientation in exactly the same way being LGBT is an orientation. Similarly, I don’t think it’s a good idea to dismiss poly as categorically not an orientation. I tend to describe poly as an orientation for me because I find that the concept of sexual orientation most closely describes the way I feel about my own sense of polyamory’s role in my life. I suppose we could try to invent a new word to describe how polyamory operates as a description of “who we are” rather than an explanation of “what we do,” but that would take more time, and chutzpah, than I have right now (or may ever have).
I also disagree that broadening our definition of the term “polyamory” weakens it. Having too narrow a definition can be just as problematic. For example, polyamorists often exclude swingers from the proverbial club (pun intended) because swingers don’t have multiple “loving” relationships. But that categorization privileges certain kinds of “love” relationships (actually, it privileges one kind whose definition is nebulous but which nonetheless one is supposed to know when one sees it) over others. Most swingers I’ve known develop intimate relationships with play partners that I would consider “loving,” even if the putative definition of “swinging” requires that the relationships be strictly sexual. The truth is that a lot of swingers (and some self-identified polys) exist in a liminal space between the strict definitions of “swinging” and “polyamory.” Perhaps the umbrella term “open relationships” is useful here, but that can open an entirely new Pandora’s box.
As with so many things, our lives and loves cause us to color outside the lines. I say we should embrace the ambiguity.
As you may have noticed, there has been a sort of blog-around going on here at Polyskeptic about the idea of polyamory as a sexual orientation. Alex, Shaun and Wes have all weighed. I’m not the kind of person to miss out on a party, so I thought I might say a few words about this. I want to talk about how my personal experience has led me to believe that polyamory is not my sexual orientation, but rather my philosophy on relationships.
That, my friends, is what we call a Thesis Statement. Awwwww shit.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, Wes and I were monogamous for the first 5 years of our relationship. Non-monogamy didn’t really enter our collective consciousness until then. I don’t quite know how we started to think about it or where we learned about open relationships (specifically polyamorous relationships). I can probably safely blame Dan Savage for this since he talks often about the idea that often a long term relationship can be helped with the introduction of non-monogamy. Regardless of how we got to the idea, one thing is certain: Though I was always monogamous in all my relationships before this, I never fully understood why so many relationships went to hell simply because partners cheated or expressed interest in people outside their relationship.
This might sound hilarious to those of you who know that I have definitely been the jealous one here. I have spoken about this often (mostly to get over the shame of being so flawed in this way. Jealousy really bothers me and I hate that it is part of my laundry list of things I have to deal with all the time in my own head). I can speak about it more freely these days as it rarely causes a problem now, but in the beginning problems were many.
When Wes and I talked about opening up I was completely onboard from a rational and logical point of view. The philosophy of non-monogamy made perfect sense to me. I am committed to Wes. I wish to spend my life with him. It seemed absurd to assume that over the course of a multi-decade relationship that neither of us would never find ourselves attracted to other people. And, as we are committed to our mutual happiness as individuals and as a couple, it also seemed absurd that we would wish that the other would deny each other chances at additional happiness. The distinction between “in addition to” and “instead of” means everything here. Wes and I wanted to be able to seek out happiness opportunities in addition to what we already have (and will continue to have) with each other.
So my wanting to be open had everything to do with believing in it philosophically. The practice of what the philosophy entails was initially tumultuous because handling something emotionally is very different from handling it logically. I was an emotional wreck for a long time. My insecurities were fierce and they led to nasty bouts with jealousy when I feared that all of my insecurities were founded. It was awful.
But I never wanted to pull the plug. To me this was not an interesting experiment that Wes and I would look back on down the road, having “gotten it out of our system” and safely returned to monogamy stronger and wiser than we were before. We chose this lifestyle because we logically, rationally, and philosophically believe in it. If I could not work through my personal issues that were getting in the way of enjoying the possibilities that polyamory presented, it would be dishonest to blame the philosophy itself for my failings. Viewing relationships through polyamorous spectacles illuminates things about yourself and those relationships. If you can work through the things that scare you about being that vulnerable, about trusting that much, you can adopt a polyamorous philosophy if you want to.
In this way, I agree with Shaun’s assessment that many people could be non-monogamous if they chose. I do not view sexual orientation as something you choose. But, to me, polyamory is all about choice. I could have demanded Wes and I go back to monogamy when I was at my lowest, but I chose not to because I believed that the potential freedom that polyamory could afford would ultimately lead to much greater happiness and strength of our relationship. This is not because I was in the closet for years about my deepest darkest desires to have relationships with multiple people, but rather because the ability to trust Wes so deeply required me to tackle a number of awful things in my brain that were getting in the way of my own happiness.
At this juncture, I know that polyamory is the right “lovestyle” for me. Practicing it makes me very happy because I have the benefit of support and love from more than one person. I would not want to go back to monogamy because that would mean not having the wonderful life I currently have. But I do not feel that it is my sexual orientation. I liken it to atheism and skepticism, not bisexuality. My commitment to skepticism means that I view the world through skeptical spectacles which means that I follow the scientific method in my approach to all things. Skepticism colors my point of view of the universe. Atheism is the same way. I do not believe that there is a god. I really don’t. I must allow for a small amount of doubt of this belief because while I don’t have any evidence that there is a god, I don’t have completely definitive evidence that there is not. But I live my life as though there is no higher power governing what I do. This is the philosophy which colors my point of view on morality. Polyamory is the philosophy which colors my approach to relationships, whether I have one or several. It is a philosophy where self-introspection, personal growth, honest communication, and truth are major tenets. Though practicing polyamory means that I can love who I want to love, it does not dictate the type of person that I love, but rather how I love.
Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.
**WARNING! DISCUSSION OF SEMANTICS AHEAD!**
Yesterday, in response to my challenge, Alex wrote a post about polyamory and orientation. Shaun followed up with his own post. I disagree with both of them, as they both make use of the term “orientation” to describe polyamory.
What is Polyamory?
First, what is this polyamory thing? Polyamory is notoriously difficult to define:
Webster’s Dictionary defines polyamory as “the state or practice of having more than one open romantic relationship at a time.”
Wikapedia defines polyamory as “the practice, desire, or acceptance of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.”
The Loving More Nonprofit website, defines polyamory as “romantic love with more than one person, honestly, ethically, and with the full knowledge and consent of all concerned.”
However, there is some agreement in the community about what polyamory is, and what polyamory isn’t. The spectrum looks something like this:
1. A couple (or more) who each engage in multiple loving relationships with the knowledge and consent of all involved
2. A couple who are each open and looking for multiple loving relationship (with knowledge & consent of both), but are currently only seeing each other
3. A couple who are each open to multiple loving relationships, but are not actively looking
4. A single person who intends to have only polyamorous relationships in the future
5. A couple who have no rule against multiple loving relationships, but only desire each other.
6. A couple who have sexual relationships with others, but not emotional relationships (i.e. swingers)
7. A couple, one or both of which are cheating
8. A couple who agree to be monogamous, although one or both have sexual desires outside of the relationship.
Obviously, there are a lot more types of relationships that may or may not fit into the poly framework. I’m just using these for illustrative purposes. The community mostly agrees that #1 and #2 are polyamorous, and #6, #7, and #8 are not. 3-5 are a gray area, although I favor an understanding of the term which encompasses at least #3 and #4. However, I (and the vast majority of the poly community) disfavor any definition that includes #7 or #8.
Is Polyamory a Sexual Orientation?
The term sexual orientation, on the other hand, until recently was used almost exclusively to mean the sex and/or gender to whom a person is attracted. It occasionally gets used to describe a person’s kinks or some other aspect of their sexuality, but by and large it’s used to describe the direction (i.e. orientation) of a person’s sexual desire.
There are a few problems with describing polyamory as a sexual orientation. The first of which is that polyamory is not sexual. Polyamory is about relationships, honesty, and intimacy. Look back at the definitions given by Loving More. Not a single one mentions sex. Calling polyamory a sexual orientation is a joke.
Secondly, polyamory is not an orientation. Polyamory is not a physical desire or a feeling. While there is not complete agreement on what polyamory is, there is clear agreement about it isn’t. And it isn’t just an attraction to multiple people. As Shaun pointed out, if you define polyamory as a feeling or an inclination, then half of the country is polyamorous, which is an absurd result. Almost everyone feels attraction for multiple people at the same time. This does not make them polyamorous.
A third problem with describing poly as a sexual orientation is that being poly is nothing like being GLB. Being GLB is about the type of person to whom you are sexually attracted. Being polyamorous is about the amount of people you love. Describing polyamory as a sexual orientation suggests a false equivalence between the groups, and seems like an attempt to coopt the sympathy that the GLBT community has built up.
Why Does it Matter?
In short, because words matter. The term “polyamory” is important. It’s the only word we have to identify ourselves. Despite it’s less than clear definition, people generally know what I mean when I say it, in a way that they wouldn’t if I described myself as “nonmonogamous” or “open.” Polyamory is the best word we have to describe our “lovestyle,” as Alex put it. If we allow it to mean something else, we risk losing one of our best rhetorical tools, and making it even more difficult to explain to people what this whole thing is all about.
What do you think? Is polyamory a sexual orientation? Does it matter?
Yesterday, Alex wrote a post about polyamory and orientation. The issue here is whether we can think about polyamory as an orientation, sort of like how we think of homosexuality, heterosexuality, or bisexuality as orientations. I wanted to add my thoughts of the topic today.
Alex brought up the issue of distinguishing between who we are and what we do. My understanding of this distinction is that “who we are” deals with our set of non-chosen desires, inclinations, and preferences. We do not choose who we are attracted to, although it is rather common for people to hide certain types of attractions due to social, often religious, pressures.
We can choose what to do about these desires.* We can be attracted to someone, and not act on it. We can not be attracted to someone, and act as if we were. We can choose to live a life of homosexuality even if we were not attracted to the same gender. We can choose to live a heterosexual life even if we actually desire same-gender relationships. The question is why would anyone do so? Why would we act contrary to our deep desires, and so often do this when it comes to our sexuality?
Some value, in such cases, would have to supersede that of requiting desires. It might be some religious rule, a sense of shame due to a social bias against our non-chosen preferences, etc. For a person to reject, suppress, or ignore–to put oneself in the closet!–their true inclinations, strong social or psychological motivations must be present.
The Privilege of Normal
The privilege of being heterosexual, cis, and monogamous allow such people to navigate the dating world with little to no interference. Such people might get annoyed by old-fashioned ideas about marriage, sex, etc, but most of our culture has accepted that a boy and a girl will get to sexin’ when they want to., and think it healthy when they pair off and move towards exclusivity and possibly consider marriage and family.
So, when people start to feel desires which don’t fit that mold they start to experience some cognitive dissonance. The normal worldview is held to be the moral ideal and is defended by family, media (especially most romantic comedies and in many children’s love stories), and often by our partners who are often living in the same cultural expectations. And so we make sacrifices, because that is what we are supposed to do.
Because that is the way relationships are supposed to work.
And of course what is normal has shifted. Homosexual relationships have, for many of us educated and especially liberal folk, become part of the normal narrative. So, the people on top of the cake might be two men or two women, but there are still two of them and there is no ambiguity about whether they are actually men or women. Like I said; normal.
Even still, LGBT activists and allies still have work to do to help our society improve when it comes to how non-heterosexual people find their way to be who they are. The LGBT community knows one set of directions this story goes. So often, a gay or lesbian people (and let’s not forget the bisexuals out there–I have a feeling they are more numerous than most people think) get involved in relationships, get married, etc to find themselves unhappy. The dream they were promised never came to fruition. Too many stories exist of people finally coming to grips with their sexuality in their 40’s, 50′. or later.
Too many stories of people living in the closet for too long for no good reason.
And in the last 10 years the atheist community has adopted the language to talk about people who have hidden their lack of belief in whatever their local mythology is. And more people are coming out as atheists now than ever before. It is a good sign for the future of atheism, towards the goal of making being an atheist no issue at all.
So, what about polyamory? Yes, there is some effort to get people to come out of the closet, but this is about getting people who are already living polyamorously to let people around them know; to take the social risk to be out about it. I support this, but what I’m addressing here is a different issue, and one which many polyamorous people will certainly disagree with me about.
I think that most people are closeted potential polyamorous people.
The Poly Closet
I think that polyamory is the rational “lovestyle” for many people, possibly most people, because many people are attracted to, interested in, etc more than one person. And most people could, if they chose to do the work, maintain a relationship with people in more than the restrictive ways than what mono-normativity allows.
As I said in my comment yesterday:
…yes! I am attracted to, and capable of loving more than one person. So of course I am polyamorously oriented. So are most people. I’m just aware of it and honest about it. Most of the rest of our culture has managed to run away and hide from this reality, and have created an artificially restrictive model for ideal relationships. I simply discovered the absurdity of that model and ditched it. Others have failed to do so, thus far.
I think this is a good start, but I think I want to tweak this a little. Because we are distinguishing between our innate desires and our choices, I will continue that distinction below.
Being oriented towards being non-monogamous is not always going to lead to actively seeking out poly relationships. Polyamorous relationships are hard (as are all relationships), and the choice to be honest with what we want and pursue those desires responsibly is one with many potential social consequences.
Being polyamorous involves actively choosing and pursuing the non-monogamous desires that we, as human beings, really do have.. In the same way that people simply are attracted to who they are attracted to (thus they don’t choose what they want to pursue a certain person, regardless of whether they actually pursue such a thing), many people actually are attracted to more than one person, interested in a deeply close relationship with more than one person, and capable of the communication it would take to do so successfully.
Many, if not most (if not the vast majority of people), are inclined towards loving or at least having sex with more than one person. Social pressure, insecurity, and fear get in the way of pursuing such in too many cases, or even of thinking about it in the first place, but the inclinations are there. If it wasn’t, cheating would rarely happen and jealousy would not be such an issue that it would end relationships. The prominence of cheating tells us that we are actually interested, and jealousy tells us that not only do we know this, but feel like we actively have to be concerned about it.
But cheating and jealousy change their colors in the context of polyamory. They are still possible and real, but they become different animals; All sexual contact outside one relationship is not automatically cheating and jealousy becomes a challenge to deal with, not merely submit to. Trust and personal challenges to mature emotionally in the context of pursuing what you really want; what any healthy relationship requires, and what polyamory has taught many people.
And the more people who do so openly, the better it will be for future poly people.
I feel it is important here to distinguish between the desire for non-monogamy, and the ideal goal of transparent, mature, and responsible relationship maintenance. Just like we have the responsibility to act on our desires in other areas with maturity and openness, we have the responsibility to treat all of our relationships with the utmost level of honesty, respect, and appropriate transparency, whether we are monogamous or not.
The only rational conclusion I can draw from the facts is that people are oriented towards non-monogamy. That is, if we are honest with ourselves, we will see that what we really want doesn’t match up with the social ideal of monogamy. So those of us who are polyamorous, at least those of us doing it in healthy, transparent, ways are honesty-oriented.
Now, whether most people can and will move towards polyamory—that is responsibly pursuing our sexual and romantic desires for multiple people—is a different question. So far, most people have not been able to escape the acculturation which trains us to seek exclusivity, monogamy, and thus to ignore what we really desire in the name of an ideology . They can often be happy, rationalize reasons to ignore other desires, and will find defenses for their monogamy. Theists do the same thing all the time in the face of atheism.
Truth is not a deep value in our culture; at best, it’s a superficial value, paraded out occasionally but which holds no real power. To actually seek truth, you have to be willing to knock down walls, question basic assumptions, and (as Nietzsche implores of us) to philosophize with a hammer. But we don’t often, as a society, do so.
Some of this can be blamed on religion, but not all of it. Religion, after all, is but one carrier of the problem, which is that of power, property, and fear. Whether we frame it in terms of patriarchy, economics, politics, or religious control over people’s desires and actions (and all of these frames contain some part of the puzzle), monogamy is about ideology manipulating our natural desires. It is about making what we really want seem wrong, impractical, or even subversive.
Because whether we are total sex sluts, asexual, or somewhere in between, the vast majority of us actually have and maintain relationships with more than one person. We are capable of liking, loving, and fucking many people in a variety of ways, but for some reason we set sexuality, romance, etc aside for one person, even if only ideally. The fact that we keep getting pulled towards the absurd ideal of monogamy, even while being single and young, is the ideology that does not jibe with the direction our desires are pulling us.
Being single and young is the exception, not the rule. Being sexually open, promiscuous, and exploring our sexuality is what we do before we are ready to settle down and be real adults.
This idea needs to be trashed. People need to realize they are in a closet, one they may not even see of as a closet. The social expectation of exclusivity and monogamy is a set of walls around our sexuality, painted as an ideal and mature way to think about relationships. Many of us have found the door, knocked over the walls, or invited other people in (the analogy could be seen in many ways, I suppose), and we are seen as destructive, rebellious, and possibly immoral.
All it takes is to ask a simple question; why is monogamy good?
Not “why is monogamy bad?” because it isn’t necessarily bad. But why is is good? Why is it the ideal? Why is it the goal? why is it more mature?
The burden of proof lies with the apologist for monogamy. If you can meet it, then congratulations, you can go live your life happily monogamous and I will have no quarrel with you; I will wish you well and hope that your partner agrees with you, otherwise you may be artificially limiting their sexuality.
So, monogamists, I am happy that you are happy (if you are happy). But others have a different orientation towards truth, honesty, and transparency about our desires; we have the ability to love each as we actually love them without consideration of monogamous social expectations. We no longer have a need for an artificial goal of exclusivity, as we can allow our true desires to be shared without shame.
Non-monogamy is an orientation based upon honesty, and more people share it with me than many think.
It’s time for more honesty-oriented living, don’t you think?
*I am leaving aside the issue of contra-causal free will here. I mean this in the sense that even if our will is not free, there is a subjective distinction between the preferences we feel and the cognitive processes which analyzes and “chooses” what to do about them.
As part of Jessie’s various birthday-related shenanigans last week, we decided to see Brave over the weekend. Oh, who am I kidding? We would have seen it anyway because it just looked awesome but Jessie’s birthday week gave us an “excuse” to go because we didn’t have a specific birthday activity yet for that day. Yes, we celebrate birthdays for a week. We got the idea from our friend Gina and haven’t looked back. Yeah, it’s gluttonous. Whatever.
Anyway, yes, we went to see Brave and I absolutely loved it. Apparently there are reasons that you can hate and be offended by the film (even without seeing it!) as outlined here. I like this blogger generally and get what she is trying to say but I think it’s a stretch to say the least…especially when you haven’t gone to see it to see if there’s anything really offensive going on. I just find it hard to characterize Brave as thinly veiled racism. And I don’t see the movie as a vehicle to make fun of Gingers. Basically, the movie is a joy to watch and these criticisms just don’t ring true with me. I mean, if you’re going to say that about Brave, then you might as well say it about Braveheart. As I recall, there’s a big mooning scene in that too and everyone loved that. But perhaps that’s because Mel Gibson can do no wrong…or because it predates the Mel Gibson Can Do Nothing BUT Wrong Era. But yes, Braveheart is a beloved movie to many and definitely had a “We wear kilts without underwear” joke in it.
I have a general love/hate relationship with Pixar. OK, I’m really only talking about Wall-E. I hated it and it’s a good thing I don’t believe in hell because I’m sure I’d be going there for hating it. My reasons for hating it say much more about my twisted brain than the film itself (I am very attached to post-apocalyptic visions and I just couldn’t stand this particular one), but needless to say, I walked out wondering if it was just that I’ve outgrown cartoons.
But really, perish the thought. I don’t think I’ll ever outgrow cartoons. I remember being in 6th grade and having my teacher ask, “Aren’t you too old for cartoons?” and I reminded her that I was 11 and that I like would never be too old…for ANYTHING (Hear that Hotpants Emporium? Watch out!). So, yeah, I’m allowed to hate Wall-E for strange adult reasons just like I can think Felix The Cat is really stupid for smart people reasons.
But Brave was good on all sorts of levels. Pixar is always impressive visually of course and the Scottish landscape and characters that were created were no disappointment. But it was really the story and the strong female protagonists that made this movie so wonderful. And it came just in time since I’m still recovering from the Epic Beauty Showdown that was Snow White and The Unimportant Character Who We’re Supposed to Care About but Don’t.
Growing up I didn’t have a lot of strong female role models in media. The Disney princesses who had been around were not particularly inspiring to me. And even when they did seem to have independence and intelligence as part of their characters, the happy ending for each of them was determined by the man they ended up with. Prince Charming did nothing for me as he was simply a standard “Good Looking Member of Royalty Who Seems Nice Enough”. The closest thing to impressive I remember was Beauty and The Beast simply because Belle was apparently “book smart” and fearless in certain ways and she fell in love with the Beast even though the townspeople wanted to light him afire with Angry Mob Torches due to his beastliness. But still, he ultimately was a rich nobleman and so by being less judgmental she was afforded the ultimate prize: To never have to work again. And she’s so beautiful, so she totes deserves it.
No, I ignored most of them not really seeing how they applied to who I was and how I wanted to live. Instead, I was drawn to female characters such as Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor. These were women who continued to fight long after all the (non-robotic) men in the story were dead and did so not because they’re pretty impressive for girls, but because they were able bodied people with a will to survive. While their movie situations were horrifying and in many ways ridiculous, I viewed these women as strong women who could exist in my universe. As a kid, I didn’t remember being particularly affected by the scary things happening, but the respect and awe I had for those particular characters in the face of that kind of adversity has always stuck with me. I made the decision long ago that I would never be a Cinderella or a Sleeping Beauty. I would do my best to be a Ripley. (I mean…I don’t really want to BE Ripley. That fourth movie is pretty weird, and the ones that proceed it aren’t a walk in the park.)
But my parents were weird and let me watch that kind of stuff when I was 7 (thank you so much mom and dad!). Brave is a movie that parents will let their kids see and finally there is a Disney princess to look up to.
I don’t really feel like going into a plot summary here. You can find that if you like and I encourage you to see it. But there are many things about the interaction of characters that made this movie stand out to me.
Merida (the princess and main character) belongs to a family that is filled with love. Yes, they are royalty, but this doesn’t seem to be a particularly important point. The relationship between Merida and her parents is a loving one. Her father is unconcerned with the fact that his eldest heir is female and teaches her about the interests she and he have in common. Her mother is charged with her education and teaching her to “be a lady”, which causes strife between them. The plot thickens when Merida is supposed to marry the most “worthy” boy in the kingdom. A lot of other stuff happens. But ultimately, mother and daughter learn the usefulness of both their strengths. Survival skills, compassion, and eloquence are ultimately proven to all be incredibly valuable. Merida learns these lessons without having to be rewarded with “the right man”. There is no lesson for viewers that if you are good enough, you will be rescued by the best possible boy and that if you fail you will be punished by having to live out your days with a useless, ugly man, or worse…no man! The movie doesn’t even try to validate her choices and strengths by showing her become queen. Her efforts are instead rewarded with happiness in the form of life as she knew it and wanted it, and with the love of her family. She made naïve mistakes, like anyone would at her age, and then she faced these mistakes. Her courageousness, intelligence, and resilience won the day and this meant that she could go back to being a kid and enjoying life as such.
Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but I think overall the movie teaches an important point of view for young kids to see. The lessons of our parents often come in very handy as we grow in the world, but it is also very important to be true to ourselves and shape our own world as we see fit. This is each of our responsibilities as we navigate life. We must challenge and reject as needed without losing sight of the wisdom present in the things people we respect tell us. And on a superficial level, getting the best looking, nicest guy doesn’t mean that you have succeeded in life. This shouldn’t be a person’s only goal. The best relationships are between those who continue to grow and change as their knowledge of the world increases.
I hope that movies like Brave will be the trend of many films and other media for young people. It’s time to stop validating old bullshit (I’m looking at you Snow White Huntsman Crapfest, also Twilight). If we really start to see women being portrayed as people with motivations and desires and dreams of their own, maybe everyone will start to believe it.