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.