One of my motivations for writing this blog is a general sense that there is an important issue which needs to be addressed by, well, all of us. Our culture does not have a healthy view about sex and relationships. The mainstream view is not ideal, even where aspects of non-mnogamy and kink enter into it. 50 Shades of Grey; need I say more? And where polyamory gets introduced to the mainstream (and I will be writing more about that in the next week or so), it is portrayed in the light least offensive to that mainstream, much like how accommodationists present atheism to the mainstream.
Atheists tends not to be polyamorous, poly people tend not to be atheists, and skeptics just aren’t implementing their tools at all they should be. Philosophically, I primarily identify as a skeptic. But for similar reasons as PZ Myers (link above) and Jen McCreight have trouble with the skeptic community, I identify first as an atheist because I prefer the way that the new atheists have addressed religion in our culture. I think something similar needs to be done for polyamory. Let’s called it the new polyamory, or perhaps something less awkward.
In essence, we need to talk about sex. Oh, and relationships, desires, social expectations, etc. We need, in short, to apply skepticism to how we think about such things, and I think if we do so then polyamory will be much more prevalent, because I think that polyamory (or at least accidental monogamy through polyamory) will be the result if we do apply skepticism to our sexual and romantic lives.
I have said that skepticism, properly applied, necessarily leads to atheism. With polyamory, I am willing to say something similar. Skepticism, properly applied, leads to a new paradigm of relationships, including sex-positivity and the non-default status of monoamory. If we think critically, as a culture, about relationships, we should arrive at a place very much like the polyamorous world (only better, because their skeptics too).
A good skeptic learns to strip away, as much as cognitively possible, the assumptions and biases which lead us towards irrational conclusions. Nobody can do it completely, but it should be a goal for all of us to aspire to; deconstructing the worldviews we hold about all of the important aspects of our lives. Skepticism implies that we require sufficient* evidence in order to believe something. Something which is merely logically possible cannot be said, reasonably, to be true on those merits alone. Rather, there should be some empirical evidence in order to lend weight to a proposition. The proposition that a “god” exists, for example, does not survive this test and so any skeptic worth their salt should not accept the proposition that a god exists until good evidence presents itself (I know of none), and therefore a skeptic should be an atheist.
But more than that, a skeptic should be willing to strip away their assumptions, the foundations to their worldview, as much as they can. Why do we seek one romantic partner? Why is monogamy the goal? Why is sex often considered dirty, or at least somehow less than pure? Why don’t we start with the bare facts of our desires?
Part of the reason is related to religion, especially when it is tied to traditional gender roles and such, but that is only part of the answer. Religion is a symptom of this problem, in most cases, and the fundamental problem is the tendency towards jealousy, sex negativity, and perhaps some evolutionary psychological reasons having to do with things such as men wanting to make sure that our children are really theirs, and not those of the mailman (but evolutionary psychology is less reliable, in many cases). Traditional family values, conservatism, and patriarchy, in other words, are at fault.
So, what can we do about it? We can start by asking ourselves questions like
1) what do we really want sexually and in terms of relationships in general?
2) what are we afraid of, jealous of, and why?
3) what do the people in our lives want?
But in order to get there, we need to strip away the layers of moral, cultural, and often religious thinking about these issues. We need to be able to apply the best that skepticism, science, and soul searching has to offer us. We need to challenge assumptions and apply skepticism to our relationships with people, but first we need to apply them to our own worldview so that we can be sure that the answers we give are actually true answers.
Towards a new polynormativity
Recently, the Sex Geek wrote an interesting post called the problem with polynormativity, which is well worth the read. And while I thought that the post was good and made some excellent points, I think it missed an opportunity; one I wish to tackle here. The post in question addresses how polyamory is depicted in the media and to the mainstream in general. The Sex Geek says this:
The problem—and it’s hardly surprising—is that the form of poly that’s getting by far the most airtime is the one that’s as similar to traditional monogamy as possible, because that’s the least threatening to the dominant social order.
This is undoubtedly true. In my experience with the media, I have noticed that the questions, framing, etc seem to imply a couple-centered view which misses much of the point. The Sex Geek addresses this and more quite well, so I will encourage you to read the whole post. So, after that brief thesis, the post continues and eventually goes on to list four norms that make up “polynormativity,” which I will simply list and hope that you will read the full post for the full effect.
1. Polyamory starts with a couple.
2. Polyamory is hierarchical.
3. Polyamory requires a lot of rules.
4. Polyamory is heterosexual(-ish). Also, cute and young and white. Also new and exciting and sexy!
The observations therein are good, and I am in general agreement, but where I think Sex Geek dropped the ball was the opportunity to define what polynormativity could be, rather than what it is. Because what we are faced with in our Western culture is a hetero-monamorous-normality which is not particularly healthy for many of us, although many manage to tweak it enough to work for them. And that’s part of the problem. We are often forced to tweak a set of values about sex and relationships which do not match up with our desires, but which seem ubiquitous, rather than throw out the framework altogether.
So, if we were to claim the term polynormativity to mean something other than a tweaked hetero-normativity, what would it look like? Well, allow me the boldness to try and sketch out a few pieces of that potential puzzle.
1. Polynormativity would be sex positive. Sex would be what we wanted it to be. It would be fun, it would be recreational, and it would not be restricted to just our serious partners (hell, if we wanted we could be non-sexual with our serious partners and slut up the rest of the town!). We would not be ashamed about our desires, we would seek to satisfy them consensually (and hopefully enthusiastically), and we would be transparent about it. It wouldn’t quite be Brave New World (which was refreshing to read because it turned our current model on it’s head, even if that is not our goal here), but it would erase the idea that sex is reserved for just one person, or one person at a time, and even that it’s not OK to have with friends.
2. Relationships would be agreed upon. All relationships structures should occur through overt agreement, or possibly organic growth from actual needs, and not by default or assumption. Currently, for mainstream society relationships may not start as exclusive, but they tend to assume the default ideal goal of monoamory, often monogamy. Dating is not assumed, at least in cosmopolitan culture, to be exclusive by many of us young people (especially those even younger than I am). But the goal for most people is to find one person to make a “commitment,” as if commitment ever necessarily implied exclusivity. The idea currently is that real love, a relationship of real depth and meaning, must be an exclusive club. You may be able to have two lovers, but you can’t truly be serious with more than one at a time, because we rationalize our jealousy into a culture of possessiveness through the Disney-esque romanticism of the princess and her prince.
3) We would start with our desires, and build up our relationships upon them. All too often, we fit our desires into the mold of our relationships, rather than the other way around. We may really like that person we met at the party, but we have a relationship already so that desire either gets suppressed or we act on it surreptitiously. We decide that a desire, whether it be homosexual, non-monogamous, or kinky in nature, is not acceptable to our lifestyle, so we grin and go along with the status quo. How many people are in the closet, either as homosexual or bisexual? How many people repress desires for people they care about because they are in a relationship? How many people have fantasies they never explore because they think it is wrong, dirty, or it might make people judge them as a ‘pervert’?
What the hell is wrong with being a pervert? So what if someone gets of on being tickled? Who cares if what Bob really wants is to get peed on? Why do you care if what I want for my birthday is to have hot sex with two or three beautiful women after drinking some fine Belgian ale? (I’m really not that kinky, am I?) We need to have the strength to admit what we really want, and try and find ways to have it if it’s possible (and moral. If your kink is to murder people, well you might be out of luck).
If we were to follow basic guidelines such as those three above (and the list is not intended to be comprehensive or exhaustive), then I think that most people would land on something like polyamory, assuming they are willing to do the work it takes to maintain the relationships they want. And the more people that do it the less weird it becomes, and people can stop using the excuse that they don’t want people to find out because it’s weird and they might lose their job or someshit. If everyone’s doing it, it become the new normal—hence the new polynormativity!
Love each person as you actually love them. No less and no more.
I’m ready for it. Are you?
*And what is sufficient will depend on many factors, which go beyond the scope of this post. But I’ve always liked the maxim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. That is, the strength of your evidence should be proportional to the audacity of your claim. Of course, what is audacious to one may not be so audacious to another, leading to a spiral which I choose not to follow at present, mostly to maintain my sanity.
6 thoughts on “Naked Skepticism and the new polynormativity”
Atheists tend not to be poly? I’m curious if you have a source for that claim, since I’ve not found this to be true in my observations.
I’m 34, have been poly since I was 18, and have lived in Austin that entire time. I’ve never become involved with anyone who was not both of these things, and it was never difficult to find. Anecdotal, sure. I’ve read another post where you mentioned Matt Dillahunty, and I am an active member of the ACA, and I know many ACA members are poly. Of course, we can embark on definitions of poly here, as most of them tend to just say they are in an open relationship. A few certainly have rules forbidding too much attachment, and looking more for friendly sex outside. Others, however, are open to anything: casual sex or serious committed secondary/multi-primary. Many are single, and date with clear communication that they are dating others, with no intention of ever being mono. Poly or not, all of these folks are certainly ethically non-monogamous.
Another place I’ve seen many poly atheists is on okcupid.com. From scouring hundreds of local Austin poly profiles, I’ve found that roughly 40% are pagan, 40% are atheists, and 20% are buddhists (many of these being also atheists). The local poly group tends to be pagan, but I know some atheists that go there, too. However, I’ve found both partners and poly support simply by being active in the atheist community, so I’ve personally never attended those poly meetups.
Of course, this is Austin. I know from friends that this is roughly true of Portland as well. I acknowledge these cities are particularly cool (by my own selfish standards of what I like in a city) and probably do not represent what the trends are like nationally.
I suppose my point is that I’m lazy and genuinely curious to see the sources that demonstrate a very different relationship between poly and atheism than I had been observing locally. If you could provide, that would be awesome.
I thank you for the comment, because it definitely tells me that my experience is not universal. In my experience, most polyamorous people tend towards paganism or some sort of vague spirituality. I do know a few poly atheists (including my family here), but they seem to be the minority in my experience. I might have to do a survey of people when I speak at the APW conference in March.
But having spent some time in Austin, I can believe your experience.
I talked with Matt Dillahunty a little about that while I was in Austin last, and he did mention that they know a fair amount of polyamorous people. We didn’t talk about it much beyond that, however.
As for OKCupid, I agree that there is a high percentage of polyamorous people and atheists, but not necessarily the overlap. Of course, my experience with OKC is with locals, so perhaps it really is a regional difference.
I would like to see some statistics on this as well, but I am not sure any exist which have a large enough sample size to be reliable. In fact, I am not sure if any sources about that overlap specifically exists.
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