I really hate when someone has the core of a good point, but expresses it in such a petty and slapdash way as to almost entirely obscure it. Such is the case with Julie Bindel’s Guardian commentary on polyamory and gender equality. To get my points of agreement out of the way: yes, polyamory needs to be conscious of gendered power dynamics. Yes, it’s not enough to give lip service to equality, but we need to critically consider the way gender impacts our actual relationships. Yes, when we push for legal recognition of multiple partnership, we need to be wary of paving the way for the return of oppressive polygyny in other communities.
But instead of an insightful discussion of the different ways gendered power dynamics actually do play out in polyamorous relationships, Bindel gives us a string of lazy jabs at how rich and white and trendy polyamorous folk are. Instead of inquiring how polyamorous people can advocate for greater acceptance of their lifestyle without bringing in oppressive polygyny as collateral, she throws in a couple of pictures of how much it sucks for women when men get to sleep around with as many partners as they want while the women have to stay home and bicker.
Bindel mentions both at the beginning and the end that she doesn’t care how many partners a person has, which leaves me wondering what exactly she wants polyamorous people to do. As a lesbian, surely she knows how the attitude “I don’t care what you do sexually, but I don’t want to hear about it” is a cover for continually denying rights and recognition to people who are just trying to live and love openly. And yet that’s the best message I can take away from her piece: “Go ahead and have all the partners you want, but don’t go pushing for greater recognition and acceptance, because you’re nothing special.” She objects to polyamory in different places, on the one hand as co-opting and rebranding traditional patriarchal polygamy, and on the other hand as stealing the term “ethical non-monogamy” from the real ethical non-monogamists, lesbian radical feminists of the 70s. She doesn’t leave a lot of semantic space that she’s willing to let modern polyamory occupy, so it seems like she’d rather just have us shut up and not call ourselves anything.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we would be thrilled if our lifestyle was so accepted and boring to the mainstream that nobody paid us any attention. I would never claim that polyamorous people in general face anything like the oppression that gays and lesbians have historically faced (and still do in many countries and communities.) I’ve never heard of anyone being physically assaulted for being polyamorous, just for a start. But that doesn’t mean our lifestyle is accepted or that we don’t have work to do. It may come as a shock to Julie Bindel, but most of US culture (and UK culture as far as I can tell) views honest intentional non-monogamy as perverted, foolish, immoral, or just plain weird. Many of us fear losing our jobs or custody of children if the truth becomes known. Being public about our lifestyle isn’t something we do for kicks, or because it lets us participate in the cool new flavor-of-the-month subversion; we do it because we want more people to understand that this is a perfectly acceptable way to live, that we can love and commit deeply even though it’s not exclusively. We do it so that people can be open about their multiple loves without threatening their jobs and families.
And yes, we do it because we want to criticize mainstream traditional assumptions about love and relationships. Non-monogamy is certainly not anywhere close to a sufficient condition for gender equality… but I would argue that eliminating compulsory monogamy may be a necessary one. Polyamory has its pitfalls, to be sure, but I do think there’s more room for true gender equality in a world where monogamy is incidental, not assumed as the norm. Compulsory monogamy demands of both men and women that they restrict their sexual interests to a single person, which for most people involves a lot of denial and repression and strategic boundaries around cross-sex friendships — friendships which can help shatter gender barriers when they are allowed to grow freely and deeply. Compulsory monogamy legitimizes and often exalts jealousy, which is hugely toxic to gender equality. Compulsory monogamy ratchets up the power stakes in a relationship, making each partner solely dependent on the other for sexual companionship, and for the emotional and economic support that comes from a long-term commitment. That sole dependency leaves room on all sides for coercion and manipulation, which is often viewed as a healthy and normal mode of operation in mainstream monogamous culture.
Of course polyamory isn’t going to singlehandedly solve the problem of sexual inequality. Of course there are strains within polyamory that enshrine gendered power dynamics rather than eroding them (Highlander Penis being one of the most notable.) As far as I’m aware, no one has claimed otherwise. But please, writers everywhere, if you’re going to criticize gender dynamics within polyamory, do it with cogent arguments and insightful observation, rather than suggesting that you’re irritated with us simply for existing.