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What has contentedness with monogamy got to do with polyamory? April 18, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
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I’m happy with my relationships.  Not directly related to this, however, is the fact that I’m not looking to meet anyone right now.  That is, I’m not actively seeking new partners right now, but its not merely because I’m happy.

There are women I’m interested in, to varying degrees, with whom I interact somewhat frequently but I either do not have any reason to believe my interest is reciprocated, or I know that this interest is not, in fact, reciprocated.  But I’m OK with that, because I’m not really looking anyway.  That may change at some point, but right now I’m content with the number of relationships I have.

Yesterday I was reflecting on this happiness and this contentment and it occurred to me that this was a feeling I had had while monogamous, in the past.  There were times, when exclusively committed to a girlfriend, where I had periods of genuine happiness with my life and contentedness with the nature of my relationship.  And this, in context to where I am now, made me realize two things about some of the reactions I hear from monogamous people upon being confronted with the possibility of polyamory.

The first is that that sense of happiness, when in a monogamous relationship,  does not imply that a person is built for monogamy, necessarily.  That would be mis-attributing the source of the happiness to the structure, rather than the contents, of their relationship.  Such a person, being happy and content with their monogamous relationship, could still pursue polyamory and be equally (and possibly more) satisfied with that alternative to sexual and romantic exclusivity.  The feeling of contentment with one’s relationships does not have to mean that one must merely tread the cultural water of mono-normativity, because perhaps being content, or even happy, is not always enough to stop the pursuit of each.  There are many potentialities in life which too many people miss because they are merely content where they are.  Perhaps they are capable of more, and don’t pursue more because they are merely ‘content’ or ‘happy enough.’

I call ‘bullshit’ on that.

A monogamous person who is happy with their partner may, in other words, be interested in other people but much like with other aspects of our lives (such as where faith comes in), be subject to confirmation bias when it comes to attributing that contentment to their exclusive relationship per se.  That is, they remember all the great aspect of the commitment they have (remember, commitment does not imply exclusivity), but forget all the times they have desires to love—erotically, romantically, etc—another person.  They feel a general contentment but may be mis-appropriating that contentment to the nature of the relationship, rather than the person they are with.  And being with other people does not (necessarily) take anything away from that great relationship, now does it?

If you answered yes, you are delusional.  Exclusivity does not a better relationship make, and loving two (or more) people does not necessarily diminish the love you have for any one of them.  If you really believe that then I will file you next to the creationists in terms of being un-attached to reality.

While I’m not actively pursuing anyone right now, or even feel a strong impulse to do so, I may in the future.  Hell, I might start doing so tomorrow, for all I know.   And this does not necessarily mean that my relationships are broken or that I’m lacking anything from my current partners, it just may mean that I might meet someone really awesome (as I did when I met Gina) or that variety in itself may be valuable to me (it is, just not all the time).

In short, I’m open to the fact that what I may want, need, etc will probably change throughout my life, and I want to keep my life open to all those possibilities out there (and, more importantly, I want to keep those opportunities open for those close to me).  And if someone else, say some monogamous person I’m explaining polyamory to, were to take their contentment at any given time  as a sign that the structure of their relationship is the cause of that contentment, then they are making a leap in logic which is not warranted.

The awesomeness of people bring us happiness and contentment, not how many of them you are romantically/sexually involved with.  How can adding more awesome people to your life be anything but, well, awesome?

I am not content because I’m polyamorous (again, per se), I’m content because the people I’m closest to are amazing, beautiful, and satisfying people.  In my case there just happen to be two of them who are willing to share me, but if their happened to just be one (or three) that would be awesome and contentment-inspiring.  But if I were monogamous, perhaps still married to Ginny, knowing and being around someone like Gina and wanting her constantly would NOT be a position of contentment for me.  And if I were monogamous thusly and intended to stay that way, I would therefore have to avoid being around someone like Gina (who I just can’t help but love) if I wanted to maintain the illusion of perpetual contentment with my hypothetical monogamy.

And this is what I think many monogamous people are doing; they are content often (perhaps very often), attribute that contentment to the exclusivity itself (hopefully tying it to the awesomeness of their partner), and ignoring or pretending that their extra-relationship desires don’t exist or would destroy that contentment by some magic unknown to me.  So they go on convincing themselves that monogamy is better for them, that polyamory would not work for them, etc while the truth very well may be that they would be happier being polyamorous if they were just willing to do the work.

This is why polyamory is superior.  Not because being with more than one person is better per se, but because being polyamorous, even while only involved with one person at any given time, allows open-ended pursuits of happiness and contentment rather than keeping us deluded that we are content in circumstances where we are unnecessarily limited, romantically and sexually.

Are you content with your monogamous relationship? Fine, what does that have to do with polyamory?


Relationship Agnosticism: process over teleology February 8, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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In conversations with people over the years, I have been asked, in a myriad of ways, if I think that polyamory is better than monoamory.  Do I think that being polyamorous is better (necessarily or generally) than monoamory?

I’ve dealt with the question before, but I want to take a different approach–a different perspective–on the question today.  I don’t think that polyamory, per se, is better.  I do think many of the skills and lessons that being polyamorous has taught me are superior, but those same lessons could, potentially, be learned while being monoamorous.  What I have come to see as superior is not the ends–not how many romantic, sexual, etc partners one has–but the process of how we get to those ends.

Process over teleology, in short.  Let me explain.

I’ve talked a fair bit about my annoyance that being with one person, even if that monoamory is not the short-term goal, is the mainstream default ultimate goal.  While young and dating, many people will date two or more people within the same time-frame, but the ultimate goal in our culture is to find one person to either settle with or to convince yourself that this one person is all that you need romantically and sexually.  And sometimes it ends up being true, whether for several years or a lifetime, but this model of relationships is not universally ideal.

The problem here is that this approach to relationships is teleological, which means it’s concerned with the ends, rather than the means or the process.  It views the purpose of relationships as being concerned with a set goal (or set of goals) which all current relationships should aspire to.  We should be tying to find a single life-partner, because that’s what real love is or something.  If you are not interested in that, then you might not find happiness, or you may even be doing something wrong.

Let’s take a couple of basic examples; Let’s say that you have been with someone for 5 years and are not married yet, and not considering marriage.   For many people you are doing something wrong, the relationship is a dead end, and you may need to find someone else you are ready to be serious with.  Marriage, monogamy really, is the goal for many people, and if that ring doesn’t present itself, then move on (that’s the wisdom, anyway).  Or maybe you don’t have a single partner for very long, whether serially monogamous or you keep dating more than one person simultaneously.  In this case, the common wisdom says that you might have commitment issues (which may be true), because if you were ready to commit you would stop playing the field and finally become an adult, or something.  In short, if you are not in a monogamous marriage, in a relationship moving towards monogamy, or even looking for that, then you are doing it wrong.

The problem here is not that finding one person to spend your life with is bad per se.  The issue is not about where you end up, the issue is how you were thinking about your desires, emotional and physical needs, and whether you were getting what you actually want from relationships rather than thinking about a default and expected end.

If you have read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, you will see this default set of relationship expectations turned on it’s head.  Here’s a snippet from chapter 3:

Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. But there were also husbands, wives, lovers. There were also monogamy and romance.

“Though you probably don’t know what those are,” said Mustapha Mond.

They shook their heads.

Family, monogamy, romance. Everywhere exclusiveness, a narrow channelling of impulse and energy.

“But every one belongs to every one else,” he concluded, citing the hypnopædic proverb.

The students nodded, emphatically agreeing with a statement which upwards of sixty-two thousand repetitions in the dark had made them accept, not merely as true, but as axiomatic, self-evident, utterly indisputable.

“But after all,” Lenina was protesting, “it’s only about four months now since I’ve been having Henry.”

“Only four months! I like that. And what’s more,” Fanny went on, pointing an accusing finger, “there’s been nobody else except Henry all that time. Has there?”

Lenina blushed scarlet; but her eyes, the tone of her voice remained defiant. “No, there hasn’t been any one else,” she answered almost truculently. “And I jolly well don’t see why there should have been.”

“Oh, she jolly well doesn’t see why there should have been,” Fanny repeated, as though to an invisible listener behind Lenina’s left shoulder. Then, with a sudden change of tone, “But seriously,” she said, “I really do think you ought to be careful. It’s such horribly bad form to go on and on like this with one man. At forty, or thirty-five, it wouldn’t be so bad. But at your age, Lenina! No, it really won’t do. And you know how strongly the D.H.C. objects to anything intense or long-drawn. Four months of Henry Foster, without having another man–why, he’d be furious if he knew …”

Some may think that this is the polyamorous ideal (and for some it may be), but this, as a societal norm, is equally problematic because it discounts the possibility that some people, few or many as they are, may not want more than one person (or anyone at all, for that matter).  This commits the same error as our current culture as being more concerned with the goal than how one gets to where we get.


Process-oriented relationships

What do you want?

I mean, what do you desire?

This may not be as easy a question as you think it is.  The reason is that many of our wants are a result of the acculturation we receive as we grow up.  We are guided towards the social and cultural ideals of the world we live in, if not out-right trained or programmed (in some extreme cases), which informs the kinds of answers that come to mind when asked what we want.  When I ask you what you want, here, I’m not asking you what your long term goals are, what you hope to achieve, and especially not what you think you should want.  No, in this case I’m asking what you desire, generally and right now, from people around you.

What types of interactions do you desire with people?

What we actually desire may conflict with the cultural norms around us, and when those things conflict we may find that we automatically, or possibly feel compelled to, lean towards the norm rather than the desire (and for many the opposite is true as well, but that’s an error I’ll not address right now).  People who find themselves attracted to their own gender may pretend otherwise, especially if they are bisexual, due to religious or cultural expectations which devalue homosexuality and bisexuality (especially for men).

If you find yourself desiring two or more people, in our culture the appropriate thing to do is to spend time with all of them, in order to determine which one you will pick, or to simply decide which to pursue so as to avoid conflicts or jealousy.  But this is absurd from a point of view where one is agnostic concerning where one ends up.

If you are not very concerned about what is expected of you from your culture, and you rather follow what you actually desire, then there is no reason to openly, un-apologetically, and unabashedly pursue all of the people whom interest you.  And you should then stay with the people with whom you share some mutually-pleasurable relationship, whether it be purely physical, purely romantic, purely friendly, or any combination thereof.  You should not be concerned about what expectations there are whether from your culture, society, religion, or family.   You should pursue what you want with concern only for the people with whom you have relationships.

In short, love each person as you actually love them, no more and no less.

And wherever that takes you, whether monoamoryy, polyamory, or some other non-monoamorous option, that’s fine.  If you end up being with one person for the rest of your life, then fine (that’s what I call “Accidental monoamory/ monogamy“) and if you end up being with 25 people (to varying degrees or not), that’s fine too.  The point is not to be perpetually strategizing what type of lifestyle you will have, but to simply allow your relationships to go where they naturally lead according to the desires that everyone involved has.

Of course, you should be transparent about this; you should not claim to be exclusive while not being exclusive, for example.  You need to pursue your desires with care and consideration for the people with whom you have relationships.

To sum up, polyamory is not better per se, although I think that what people can learn from polyamory might raise our cultural consciousness about the nature of desire and relationship possibilities which most people don’t consider.  I don’t necessarily want everyone to be polyamorous, but I think everyone should be aware that monoamory is not the only healthy option.  If we allow our actual desires to fuel our pursuit of love and sex, I think many more people will find options more like polyamory, rather than automatically and unthinkingly choose monoamory out of cultural habit.

Naked Skepticism and the new polynormativity February 1, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
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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).


Naked Skepticism

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.

That moment when you realize that you are really into that single but not-polyamorous girl… January 30, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory.
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So, you know that trope about the guy who is into the straight guy (or girl who is into the straight girl)?


So, people who are not really familiar or comfortable with polyamory, or who explicitly say they don’t think they can or want to get involved with polyamory themselves (whether their reasons are well articulated or not), are perhaps the kind of people in whom it might not be smart to become interested.  Especially if you have any reason to believe that if you were not polyamorous, and you were single, they would potentially be into you.  Also if you are really attracted to them, and you somehow cannot help but keep talking with them knowing all that is the case.  You know, because we are always rational and wise beings, with our ability to control of motivations, who we’re into, and all that jazz.

You see, sometimes when you are in such a predicament, you get to that point where you realize that you are being sucked into that hole; you know that hole where under any reasonable set of circumstances you would feel happy, elated, giddy even.  Except in this case, rather than cutesy giddiness you end up feeling like the only response that makes sense is to stare blankly at the wall (or computer monitor or whatever) and say to yourself “well, shit, this is going to suck,” while you secretly, deep down, hope that it will not.

You know, that delusional part of you deep down where neither love, lust, nor respect are ever unrequited.

But also in there, perhaps deeper or perhaps of similar depth but like to the side or something (my knowledge of depth psychology is obviously not, ahem, deep) you know it probably is just going to end up with a (figurative, hopefully) kick in the stomach.  You know that it’s probably a terrible idea to keep hope alive for any romantic, sexual, or even heavy-make-out-esque relationship, but you also know ridding yourself of such hope will be quite difficult and painful.

You, of course, have already made it clear what your goals and desires are, and they have respectfully rejected the proposition and you move on to talk about other things.  Other non-romantic or sexy things.  You have told them that you are attracted to them, you talk about polyamory a little and they are uncertain (at best) about it, and then you go on and have a friendly conversation with them.  Because you really do like talking with them and you can have a good time as platonic, non-sexual, friends with them…or something.

Because you totally can just pretend that you don’t find them very sexually attractive and just be friends.  Because you are a decent person who doesn’t need to have sex with someone just because that’s what you want…like what you really, really want…and be just a friend to them because you like them and they are a god person and because you have stuff in common and because that’s the decent thing to do, dammit!


So, Wes wrote about being friendzoned recently, and I agree with what he said pretty much, but this situation is different than what he explained there.  This is a situation where the intentions of both parties are clearly stated, but still one finds himself (it is me we’re talking about, after all) with a friend, and not a lover.  And while I am happy to be friends, there is that moment when I realize that the attraction is a little bit more than merely physical, and there is nothing I can do about it.

It’s one of the things that really sucks about being polyamorous in a monoamorous-dominant world.  Because it’s one thing for someone to not be into you, but it’s quite another when they might be into you, but it does not matter because you have other women (or men, or both) in your life.  It makes one ponder what the world would be if we all were polyamorous, or at least poly friendly.  It makes me, specifically, yearn for a world where polyamory was not so strange, so uncomfortable, so radical.

Then there is that little voice that, in the back of your mind, whispers little things to you like “just wait, she’ll change her mind” or “she really is into you, she’s just not sure about the poly thing; she’ll get over it!”  But, that’s a tricky road to navigate, because it’s probably a delusional little voice.  While that voice might keep that flame alive, that flame might just burn you as well as a potential friendship unnecessarily.

Then there is the other voice, the one that says “dude, you are just infatuated.  Even if she changed her mind you would have like a month of really hot sex, and then what? Can you expect a monoamorous girl to first get involved with you then accept the potential role of being your close friend who you used to have sex with a lot? perhaps even still do occasionally? That’s a lot to transition to from a monoamorous worldview.”  And that voice, while possibly also wrong (because who knows? she might end up being a long term girlfriend!), has a point.  Because a friend who I have sex with is not a stretch of the imagination for me; a polyamorous, sex-positive, slut.  But for someone who has a different set of experiences, that might be destructive, hurtful, and it might preclude the possibility of a friendship continuing.

It’s so much easier when all you’re interested in is sex, because in that case when the rejection comes you can just move on and not worry about it.

So, what to do? What do you do when you realize that being platonic friends with someone may be too hard for you, even if the friendship itself will almost certainly be rewarding in itself? I mean, I know monogamorous people deal with this all the time (and for them, I advise them to just get over it already and be polyamorous, knowing most won’t), but monoamorous people are generally used to suppressing such desires. That’s why cheating is so rare.  Right.

Ugh….  Having a conscience sucks sometimes.

It sucks because in such situations you really do want to be friends with them, but you also know that the attraction will sit there between you the whole time.  You can try and keep it away from your conversations with them, but it will poke it’s head out now and then to remind you, and possibly her, that it’s still there.

Of course, then you realize that you’ve had a couple of drinks and you are tired, and that is potentially skewing how you feel.  So maybe you should just sleep on it.  Perhaps tomorrow you’ll feel differently.

Yeah, that’ll work!

Well, good night then.

Atonement and Monogamy as Impossible Ideals October 24, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory.
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As a student of anthropology, I think a lot about cultural constructs which permeate our lives, most of which are pretty invisible to us most of the time.  From an early age I was fascinated with the various institutions of religion, as well as the many more personal spiritual ideologies people espouse, and the various psychological and sociological structures which surround them.  Later on, I started thinking about similar aspects of how we think about sex and relationships, and eventually found many similarities between how we think about gods, spirits, and sex.  This is no surprise since one of the best ways for religions to hold our attention is to demand certain behaviors is to hold us hostage with fears about our deepest inclinations; sex is a great example of this.

In religion, there is this idea of atonement.  It comes in many forms from many theological systems, but it is basically the way that we come to make amends with some supernatural or natural power.  Whether we have to deal with a fundamental brokenness in our nature, some separation, or lack of enlightenment (to only scratch the surface of ways religious ideas deal with this atonement thing) from the power we seek atonement with, there is a set of actions and beliefs which we must do or have in order to reach some ideal relationship with the universe, deity, or ourselves.

Tantalus perpetually reaching for fruit and water he will never grasp

It is my view that the religions which survive best find a balance of difficulty and comprehensibility in the ideals it sets up.  Adherents must be, like the  Tantalus of Greek mythology, perpetually reaching for this ideal of atonement which they cannot really achieve, but it must be something they can imagine as a logically possible thing to have.  Sure, people can think that they have achieved the goal (as many Christians believe they are saved), but the scriptures and religious leaders will always mention that this is pride, or something similar in order to keep them in check.

Opposed, conceptually, to atonement is some detriment presented as part of our nature or circumstance.  We stand unenlightened, sinful, or separated from some god(s), knowledge, or understanding and we will remain there until we atone, repent, or whatever must be done to solve this problem, heal this sickness, etc.  As Christopher Hitchens said many times,

Even the most humane and compassionate of the monotheisms and polytheisms are complicit in this quiet and irrational authoritarianism: they proclaim us, in Fulke Greville‘s unforgettable line, “Created sick — Commanded to be well.”

The bottom line here is that there is a tendency in human worldviews, whether religion or otherwise, to present a highly unlikely ideal against some much more likely, and often repugnant, set of behaviors or beliefs which we must be encouraged away from.


The sin of non-monogamy and the atonement with The One.

There is a mainstream view of sex and relationships, here in the modern west and most other developed nations, with monogamy as the ideal relationship type.  The majority of cultures have some version of this practice, and it’s major competitor is some kind of patriarchal polygamy.  Polyandry or true sexual/relationship equality is rare and considered aberrational when it occurs.  It took quite a while before we would have a sexual revolution, and with it true freedom started to become part of our cultural consciousness.

And yet even still there exists within our sexually liberated world a distinction between studs and sluts; men are expected to be promiscuous, women are often valued for their “purity.”  These promiscuous men and these sluts are expected, or at least encouraged, to eventually outgrow this part of their life and find The One, or at least settle for A One.

Do you believe that lifelong monogamy is a realistic expectation for a married couple? (click for context and details)

For most people who have a period of sexual liberation, it ends with the attempt to reach an ideal of monogamy. Men and women may be expected to have sexual experiences in their teenage years and into their 20’s, but eventually most people expect them to settle down.  “Settling down” means taking relationships seriously, and usually means exclusivity, marriage, and monogamy.  So while we are liberated as a culture in terms of having sex before we “get serious,” get serious we should, because seriousness means exclusivity and exclusivity is good.

The fallen circumstance, or nature, which even our progressive culture patiently tolerates for is one of promiscuity.  But this sexually liberated part of our lives is held against a stable future ideal of monogamy.   The holy grail of relationships, The One, is presented against the superficial and regrettable reality of youthful promiscuity.  This One is The  person with whom we can have a real relationship, rather than failing perpetually hopping from one insignificant relationship to another (sometimes at the same time!).

A mnemonic device I learned years ago about the word atone was that you can break it down into at+one.  In other words, especially for many Christian traditions, the goal was to work to become at one with some god or another.  All of our other inclinations, not having to do with this atonement, should be secondary to that relationship of working towards chasing that ideal, because nothing was more important than that.  Monogamy has taken a similar place in our culture as that ideal of religious atonement; the sinful and superficial world of sex, lust, and other failings of human behavior are presented against an ideal of monogamy.  That is, even liberal society maintains this ideal, even though that liberality allows sexual promiscuity, co-habitation before marriage, etc.  Anything that looks like monogamy, even if it isn’t really marriage, is what we should be striving for.  The difference here between mainstream conservatives and liberals on this issue is how we get to monogamy, not whether that is the goal.

This shows me that culture tends to be truly human (all too human!) and tends to have worldviews which are conservative even when we are progressive (I actually argue that today’s liberals are tomorrow’s conservatives, because the mainstream is largely conservatives concerning ideals).  We conserve ideals, even as our values shift.  So, even as we become increasingly liberal as a society in terms of seeing redemption and atonement in looser and looser terms, we hold onto the ideal itself.  Liberal views about the supernatural and what we should be doing with our lives changes in terms of the details of the path to get there, but the destination does not really change.  This is one of the greatest failings of most of mainstream liberal culture; it does not seek to question the ideals, assumptions, and goals of our worldviews.


Ideals Worth Wanting

What should be the strength of progressive culture, or perhaps a radical culture, is the re-valuing of our values.  We need to evaluate what is worth valuing, not what we should change in terms of how to get to our Heavens, Nirvanas, or other paradises whether they be otherworldly or physical.  The question is not how we can get to paradise or what we are allowed to do before we settle into monogamy, the issue is why do we value such ideals? Why is being at one with some supernatural power good? Why is monogamy the ideal?

I don’t think there are good answers to those questions, except to say that perhaps those things should not be ideals at all.  With religion, atonement is merely an impossible goal, set before us to tantalize us and keep us striving and behaving within acceptable boundaries.  Monogamy is no different, in that the only way to achieve it is to pretend as if our ability of love is so limited, and our sexual desires so parochial, that we force ourselves into ideal relationship expectations while repeatedly failing in thought if not act.  There is no reason to set us up with impossible ideals which make no sense to value, whether with gods or monogamy, when we have real ideals to inspire us.

A skeptical approach to reality brings us to an informed and skeptical atheism, and allows us to love the people we love, the way we want to love them, in order to live authentic and rewarding lives.  And while we may never be ideal skeptics or lovers, we can at least have ideals worth wanting.


Because I’m polyamorous… August 2, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
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Ian Cromwell has been running a series of essays submitted to him entitled “Because I’m an atheist…” and I have been reading them for a while.  Today, my answer went up, which caused me to think about the implications of being polyamorous.

Because I’m polyamorous, I don’t have to pretend to be anything other than what I am.  I live such that if I meet someone I’m interested in, no matter how I’m interested in, I don’t have to nudge that interest into “appropriate” directions.  I don’t have to avoid friendships with people to whom I am attracted, nor do I have to suppress feelings of attraction, which in the long run often leads to feelings of resentment and often clandestine sexual relationships which destroy relationships when they don’t have to.

I get to love each person according, not to some pre-scripted appropriate way, but to how I actually do want to love them.  All I need is them to have mutual desires, open communication about said desires to my other partners, and the time and inclination to pursue them.

It also means that I get to be who I am, completely.  My wife and girlfriend both know I find other women attractive, but because they know this they know that the affection I show to them is genuine and authentic.  I’m not in a situation where all of my affection is tunneled towards one person, and they have to wonder if I’m only doing it because I have to;  because I have nowhere else to act on such feelings.

As such, because I’m polyamorous there is more grounds for security on my relationships.  See, rather than threaten my relationships, my (as well as my partners’) ability to pursue other people for friendship, hookups, or possibly a new relationships means that if I stay with someone, I really want to be with them.  With (serial, especially) monogamy, it is too easy just to keep holding onto a relationship because you are not sure if you will have another one available(which, of course, is not a good reason to stay in a relationship!).

The big threat for monogamy is often other people.  With polyamory, other people is the rule and so that threat is made mostly impotent.  Of course, interpersonal issues may still arise (as they do with monogamy), but ideally when that other person comes around and draws your partner’s eye, you know they will still come back to you again and again.

Because I’m polyamorous I have been forced to mature emotionally (specifically concerning jealousy), develop better communication skills, and think more about the differences between what we actually want and what we decide is good for us.  It is clear to me that most people want to be with more than one person sexually, romantically, etc.  What is not clear to me is why so many people are monogamous.

Because I’m polyamorous, I have developed a keener eye about how we, as a culture, think about relationships, love, and sex.  So, because I’m polyamorous, I have a better perspective on romance, sex, and relationships than most monogamous people.

Ultimately, because I’m polyamorous, I write about polyamory so that more people can understand why this lifestyle is so wonderful, challenging, and worth every ounce of effort.

The Bachelorette and Polyamory? (via Respectful Atheist) July 22, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory.
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As I have said, I read a bunch of blogs.  Many of them are related to polyamory, but most are atheist-oriented.  And while some have some overlap, most are largely unaware or at least unconcerned with the other issue most of the time.

Somewhat recently, I started following the blog called “Respectful Atheist,” which I discovered via another blogger.  And it seems that the Respectful Atheist may follow this blog as well, because he at least links to us.

So, today a post went up about the Bachelorette.  I have never seen the show (as I have no interest in the majority of “reality” TV shows), but often such shows give us things to talk about, as it did in this case.

Now, I know that today’s post is not about polyamory, at least that was not the primary focus, but I think that it demonstrates how much our species has attributes which are conducive to polyamory and how enlightening a non-monogamous view of relationships can often be in exposing our assumptions.

In the post, Respectful Atheist (RA) says:

The other thing I find interesting is the way in which The Bachelor/Bachelorette, in this case Emily Maynard, goes about making their decision as to who they will pick in the end.  In nearly every season, the given star of the show comments on how they are falling (or have fallen) in love with more than one person at the same time.  This always seems to come as a total shock to their system, the implication being that there must be something terribly unnatural about having feelings of love for several people simultaneously. [emphasis in original]

Isn’t that fascinating? People who actually are falling in love with more than one person, rather than just deal with that as a reality and thinking rationally about the consequences of that reality (I know, perish the thought!), tend to conclude something is wrong, rather than consider that the premise of their quest for “the one” is fundamentally flawed.

I have said on this blog before that part of the problem with our culture is that monogamy is assumed, rather than chosen.  This circumstance from this TV show is one type of example of what I mean.  RA continues, describing their interpretation of the Bachelorette’s circumstance;

In Emily’s case, the cognitive dissonance that results leads her straight into a period of deep confusion, during which time she considers the idea these conflicted feelings may themselves serve as proof that both of her top two guys are in fact wrong for her.  In other words, as the thinking goes, if one candidate is not very clearly better, than each of the others, something just must not be right (because it’s not supposed to feel this way).  Sadly, there are others, close to Emily, who encourage this type of thinking, which only ads to her confusion for a time.  She *should* feel much more strongly for the guy she is *supposed* to choose, because that is the one guy she is *meant* to be with…right?

Ah, social sanctioning of ignoring the truth (how she actually feels) for a cultural ideal which does not fit with the actual facts.  Isn’t our culture grand?

Bizarre scenarios and love as a choice?

Respectful Atheist’s post is about the concept of a “soul mate” and continues a criticism of this idea in light of this reality show.  I have touched on this issue myself in the past, and largely agree with that part of RA’s post.  But later in the post, RA says this;

It IS possible to fall in love with more than one person, at the exact same time, and we should expect nothing less when we engineer such bizarre scenarios.  In our culture, it’s not considered normal to date 30 people at once (in fact, it’s generally frowned upon!), so it’s just that we don’t often see these dynamics in action….

Perhaps RA doesn’t often see such dynamics in action, but I do see similar things play out all the time (and not only in the poly world, but elsewhere; I notice it because I’m sensitive to it).  And I think it is more common than we, as a culture, are always aware of, perhaps because we are distracted by the ideal of monogamy? Who knows….

So, I’m assuming that the set-up of the show allows the bachelorette to interact, date, etc with 30 people, who over time get eliminated until eventually there is just one left? The deliberateness of it and the presence of producers and cameras certainly make it “bizarre,” but is the fundamental set-up really that strange? Perhaps it is more quantitatively exaggerated, but is it qualitatively bizarre?

Many people, even in the monogomously-inclined world, date multiple people simultaneously (not usually 30…), most with the goal of eventually choosing one.  That is the ideal of our culture; we have the freedom to interact with, date, etc a number of people to find “the one” who, while we are not meant (by god, gods, or any cosmic forces) to be with, we choose to be with.

RA’s criticism here falls on the idea of “the one” being fated, not with the concept of there being just one.

…The truth is there is no one person who is *meant* to be with you or I forever.  I know this all sounds terribly unromantic of me to say….

The criticism is of the concept of a “soul mate,” while not taking the next step and being overtly skeptical about the ideal of their being one person we choose.  But like I said, this was a post about the role of deities in finding our one person, not polyamory.

RA continues;

Please understand that I say it as a guy who is very happily married, and plans to remain so until the day that he dies.  But isn’t this more romantic anyway?  I’d much rather marry someone who promises to stick with me, through thick and thin, even when their feelings wax and wane. [emphasis original]

RA does not say so explicitly, and I would like to hear his thoughts on this later, but this sounds like “stick with me, through thick and thin” means that they will remain monogamous, committed, etc.  Well, I’m married as well and I am committed to both Ginny (my wife) and Gina (my beloved girlfriend).  I chose to be with both of them (and I may meet another person I wish to commit to as well, but perhaps not), and I love both of them and will remain with them through thick and thin.

The juxtaposition of this with RA’s comments about the bachelorette’s position of being in love with two people seems to indicate that I’m not particularly romantic.

What I mean is that RA’s commentary seems to assume that the monogamous circumstance RA has chosen is “more romantic,” and possibly more legitimate, than being in love with more than one person as Emily found herself in the show.  I don’t think that he would have meant to imply that my choice (if it is a choice…we’ll get to that…) is somehow not romantic or meaningful, but that seems to be the logical implication.  I think this may be a blind spot for monogamous people.  A privilege, if you would.

RA finishes that last paragraph with the following.

You can’t “fall out of love”, because love is not a feeling to begin with…it’s a choice.  I realize that choice is driven by feelings, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it’s still a choice at the end of the day.

This is probably a semantic disagreement, but I do disagree.  As I use the terms, one chooses (insofar as choice is meaningful in a deterministic universe) to commit to another person, but we don’t choose to love them.  I think this may be what RA means, so I will not quibble about this more than I already have.

But in the context of the criticism of the concept of a “soul mate” in the context of actually having feelings for more than one person, I find it very interesting that an intelligent, thoughtful, and aware person, as RA seems to be, misses the implication here.  It is possible that he is quite aware of it and is setting it aside because the post is about something else, but the language used seems to imply a view consistent with monogamy being somehow more romantic, meaningful, etc.

While the point about there not being a person “meant” for you is spot on, how does RA miss the fact that circumstances, such as the bachelorette’s having love-feelings for multiple people, are examples of how we truly can love more than one person and that perhaps this tells us something about the choices we should and could make?

Why monogamy (reprise)

Why should we choose one person? Why do so many people tend to (perhaps unconsciously) associate commitment with monogamy (or at least monoamory)? Why is one special person more “romantic” than two, three, or possibly more? The fact is that we don’t choose who we love, but we (as a culture) do choose to ignore or set aside some other loves in order to compromise to have another.  We choose to direct our feelings towards one person, even though we do, or potentially do, love other people.


I have no reason to doubt that RA is happy being married and (as is implied) monogamous.  And if they are in fact monogamous, I have no doubt that their relationship is potentially healthy, happy, and worth the effort for both of them.

That isn’t the point.

The point is why did they choose that path? Why do we, as a culture, choose to be monogamous so often?  If we recognize that we can love more than one person (whether or not the circumstances are bizarre or not), why would we not? Why would we artificially limit ourselves to one person?

It’s not necessarily more romantic, meaningful, or intimate to be monogamous.  These are myths about relationships in our culture, and our actual feelings and experience with actually loving and committing to multiple people (either serially or in parallel) attests to that.  And when we are faced with that reality, as the bachelorette apparently was, it is fascinating that many people assume something is wrong rather than step back and apply that experience to our assumptions like a good skeptic should.

So not only is there not one “soul mate” out there for you, there may not only be one person.  RA adds some thoughts that are encouraging to this polyamorous, atheist, skeptic;

We tend not to give ourselves enough credit; Maynard included.  She need not deny, or be in any way embarrassed, about the fact that she fell for more than one guy on the show.  Sometimes there is no *one* right way to go, even in cases where there is a choice that clearly needs to be made.  This is my larger point.  I think we all hope that she will make her choice (as spoilers would indicate that she does) and live happily ever after.  And those people who would have had Emily doubt herself, simply because her love has not been directed at one man exclusively, are clearly well meaning but misguided.  What Emily needs to do instead is make a rational choice….based on her feelings, yes, but also based on her head.

And while I think RA is talking about the fact that with the options given perhaps neither is right, I think that it can be read to mean that perhaps the choice could be both.  If we make a rational choice using both our hearts and our heads, we will find that we are capable of sharing ourselves and our beloveds, and recognizing that not all choices are exclusive, but some are inclusive.

And while the bachelorette will almost certainly choose to exclude one or more people in order to choose one, as RA may have also done, this is not the only option.  We can choose to love and commit to each person as we actually desire to and allow those we love to do the same.

That’s using our hearts and heads rationally.

Is polyamory better for humanity? Let’s find out! July 1, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory.
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I am well aware that there are people within the polyamory world for whom the idea that polyamory is better than monogamy is quite annoying.  To say that polyamory is somehow objectively better, from their point of view, is to miss the varieties of human experience.  How can anyone be so arrogant, parochial, or unobservant to not notice that many people are quite happy being monogamous?  How can such people not see that not everyone wants to or can be polyamorous?

I have a feeling that some people who read this blog, or who know me, think my opinion is that polyamorous people are better than non-poly people.  But before I address that question directly, allow me to make an important distinction that may help avoid conflating two different sets of views which are related to the question, and which may be creating confusion as to what is being claimed by some “arrogant” polyamorous people.

(Not that anyone has ever called me arrogant…)

There are probably people out there who will make the claim that poly people are better than monogamous people.  One can trip them up by pointing to quite mature, happy, awesome monogamous people and compare them to people who are polyamorous but aren’t as respectable.  There are many out there who are doing polyamory—well, they are really just doing relationships and personal growth—in unhealthy ways.  Such people who will want to maintain some form of this claim of superiority will step back and make some bell-curve restatement; something like people who are polyamorous are generally better than monogamous people, but there are exceptions (of course).

This line of argument is pretty fruitless, as there is no research I know of that could support this (or the opposite) claim.  We don’t have agreed-upon criteria for better or worse, necessarily (although we could come up with some), and even if we did have such criteria, we don’t have the data to apply to such.  The conversation about whether poly people are better, equivalent, or worse than monos leads us [nowhere practically useful], in my opinion.  We are left with individual judgments about other people based upon our experience, which is subject to personal biases and criteria, which is not particularly helpful in general claims about superiority.  Thus, to make general claims about whether poly or mono people are better is quite difficult, even if one where to identify some rubric for talking about such a general claim.  So while there may be aspects of polyamory which are superior, whether the people themselves are is a separate question.

These (I hope uncontroversial) observations lead many people to the conclusion that we cannot create an objective criteria for judging the relative superiority of polyamory and monoamory (rather than monogamy because we are not necessarily talking about marriage, since -gamy means marriage).  But, further, it leads many people to the conclusion that the whole enterprise of judging the general merits of polyamory in relation to relationship exclusivity is not only fruitless or complicated, but simply wrong-headed; poly people are not better than mono people, they just have chosen what works for them, just like many monogamous/monoamorous people.  And, the argument goes, since we all have to make our own choices about how to live, and since we have different desires and experiences, we cannot judge whether one relationship philosophy is better than the other.

However, polyamory is not sufficiently culturally disseminated, as an idea, to say that the vast majority of people have actually chosen monoamory.  There is simply no way to rationally claim that there is a real choice between mono and poly styles of relationships for most people.  There are too many acculturated ideologies, fears, and assumptions about how sexuality and relationships work to say that there is a level field of competition in the mind of people exposed to polyamory to make the claim that mono people have really chosen their relationship styles with appropriate consideration.

The question is what would happen is the vast majority of people really understood what this choice entailed.  If most people understood what polyamory was about—including the importance of honesty, communication, the desire to deal with jealousies in mature ways, etc—would most people still choose and be happy with monogamy?  We simply have no good way of knowing the answer to this question.  I may have my (biased, even if educated) guess, but I have little to no evidence to support those views.  I think it is an interesting thing to think about.  I think the discussion will draw out our assumptions about human nature, human sexuality, and how we think about relationships.  But we can only get so far with that conversation, and it will be based upon a fair amount of supposition.

So, keeping that in mind, I want to sketch out a project.  I begin with the assumption that there is meaning to the idea that there are better ways to be as human beings; there are attributes, behavior-patterns, and worldviews which are better at creating happiness, well-being, and quality of life.  There is meaning to the idea that there is an objective, rationally-based, metric for how to think about how to be human better, and we may not be far from defining what those things may be.

I think such a metric must be evidenced-based (that is, skeptical).  I believe that while personal taste is a factor, we cannot retreat to pure relativism where we merely get to decide, on a whim, what is best for us.  I think that sometimes we are wrong about what is best for us, and that we often need to appeal to something larger than us (a community, an idea, etc) to figure out if what we have chosen, while not terrible or overtly bad, may not actually what will make us happiest and most fulfilled. I think that there is always room for improvement in our lives, and we need to perpetually question our assumptions and worldview.

I agree with the idea that morality, even absent a god or cosmic purpose, is in some way objective and definable and that morality has a lot to say about how we could live in order to be happier, fulfilled, and live more authentically.  I believe that honesty, attention, and authenticity are high values that we all should try and incorporate in our lives.  And I think that we need to be prepared to both challenge and be challenged, and if we do so we can transcend the cultural idea that criticism and judgment are bad things.

So, what if we were to try and come up with a metric for what is more rational and better behavior for people in terms of leading to more happiness and fulfillment?  Would it turn out that polyamory is the option which would be better for most people?

The rub for me is that I think there are objective facts which can help us make such judgments, but that how we rule on such questions will depend on too many unknown factors.  I am willing to admit that it may end up being the case that monoamory is objectively better for most people.  The point is that I think that this is a real issue that can really be tested, not something merely subject to personal taste or mere choice—especially given that most people don’t know enough about polyamory to effectively choose it.

I think there may be ways to objectively judge if polyamory is or is not better for people, even if I cannot fully define such a project right now.

So, rather than ask if polyamorous people are better than monoamorous people, the question should be whether polyamory is better than monoamory for people given that currently-monoamorous people are indeed fine people in most cases and that they are currently generally content with their choice.  The implication is not that monogamous people are doing anything wrong, are unhappy, or any such thing.  The question is whether polyamory fits better with human desires, behavior patterns, etc. and will serve as a more objectively practical relationship style in terms of providing humanity with a better way to think about love, sex, and well-being.

I make such a distinction because I perceive that when I make a claim like “polyamory is better than monogamy” I think people interpret this to mean that I think I’m better than monogamous people because I’m polyamorous (or even that I’m polyamorous because I’m better, in case anyone has forgotten about that fracas).  No, I think I’m better than some people because I’m better than some people.  I’m worse than others because I’m worse than others.  My being polyamorous is, in part, a result of some of the attributes that I like about myself—I’m honest with my desires, I seek to live authentically, and I seek to challenge myself to perpetually grow as a person.  I just happen to be convinced that polyamory is a wonderful way to be human and that it fits very well with what I observe as human inclinations  and follows along nicely with efforts to be a better person in general.  And if some (or many) people end up being accidentally happy as monoamorous, then so long as they are not suppressing anyone’s desires to do so, I have no quarrel.

In the future, I will want to sketch out the criteria about how we might pursue such a question as whether polyamory is actually objectively better than monoamory, but for now I want to make it clear that this is not a competition about what people are better than other people (although that can be a fun game too, I suppose), but rather what relationships behaviors are better for groups of humans.

Polyamory and being Honesty-Oriented June 26, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory.
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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.

Anger Management June 23, 2012

Posted by Alex Bove in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: , , ,
comments closed

I was struck by many things in the “Godless Perverts” panel video Shaun posted yesterday, but one thing in particular that I’ve been meaning to write more about was the idea of the narrative of redemption through suffering (Maggie Mayhem segues into Charlie Glickman discussing it, starting at around 30:25 of Pt. II). I’m going to try to tread very carefully here as I discuss the ways in which I think this concept is relevant to nonmonogamy, so please accept the caveat that I’m trying to make somewhat broad conceptual associations in order to see if they’re fruitful.

When we “come out” as atheists, many of us face the usual types of reactions. Some people accept our decision right away (or don’t really care–i.e. it’s not really their business how we live our lives); some say they knew all along and are genuinely happy for us; some completely reject atheism and, thus, reject us along with the proverbial bathwater. If I think about people as roughly falling into three camps–true believers/theists, nonbelievers, and “weak” believers (i.e. those who may identify as religious but whose religiosity operates more as a cultural identity, or quasi-ethnicity, than as a dominant life philosophy)–all of these reactions make some sense to me. The true believers are likely to want nothing to do with an atheist (except the ones who might think they can “save” us, but that’s another blog post altogether), and may even feel threatened by an atheists’ presence in their lives (because, as everyone knows, we recruit). The nonbelievers will either embrace our newly-announced identity or be indifferent, neither of which harms us much, though the former can certainly help.

The middle group, though, are the ones who tend to respond angrily. Some people seem to get very angry when I share my atheism (or skepticism of almost any kind, honestly) with them, and I’ve spent some time trying to understand why.

(Big assumption alert)

I think the “weak” believers get angry when we decide to live our atheist lives openly and unapologetically because, at least on some level, they’ve bought into the narrative that pious people deserve to be rewarded and wicked people must be punished. Even though they may not go to church every week, or observe all of the holidays, rituals, etc. required by the most devout members of their religious identity group, they still want to believe that their lukewarm belief–and, often, adherence to at least some elements of their religion’s moral/ethical rules–will gain them a reward. In other words, they’ve given up some things in order to convince themselves that they’re a good “insert religious identity here,” and if atheists are living happy, free, unapologetic lives and not being punished for it, the “weak” believers’ entire ideological framework is in danger of crumbling like a house of cards.

The historically religious narrative of asceticism and punishment leading to reward/redemption is so powerful that, I’m arguing, it has become a powerful secular narrative, even in the minds of those who do not strongly identify as religious. Hence, they often can’t articulate why they’re mad at us. Usually they say things like, “why can’t you just keep that to yourself?” or “did you have to shove that down my throat?” when we’ve done no such thing. They feel threatened because our unpunished existence directly contradicts the narrative not only that they want to believe but that has motivated actual life choices they’ve made, and these choices often involve sacrifices that they would not have made were it not for their belief in the reward/redemption at the end of the narrative.

When we come out, and especially when we openly and honestly live our lives, as polyamorous, we tend to get the same spectrum of response. Some people simply can’t accept our choice, or they may feel threatened that we’ll try to “steal” their partners, etc. This is always sad, but I think we can all deal with it. Some people (often the similarly nonmonogamous) embrace our choice and/or take a “it’s not really my business, but I’ll show tepid support” attitude, or (occasionally) express mild disapproval but tolerance. Again, the latter responses are not my favorites, but I don’t worry too much about them. They might be described as falling into the YKINMK camp, and that’s understandable. The angry responses, however, can be tough to grok. Why do other people get so exorcised over our chosen lovestyle?

My answer is that mononormativity operates as a secular form of the historically religious narrative of suffering leading to reward/redemption. Here I’m defining “suffering” extremely broadly. In the case of monogamy, what I mean is that monogamous people deny often themselves the pleasure of multiple intimate relationships (these need not be sexual–remember that many monogamous people believe that even having close friendships with people other than one’s spouse is a form of cheating). This sacrifice has a cost, but it also has a reward. Monogamists feel a kind of secular piety, a sense that they’re doing the right thing. Moreover, they tend to think that the sacrifice is the very thing that gives the monogamous dyad its special status.

I’ve seen this sentiment over and over again in online forums and in conversations with “devoutly” monogamous people. People have told me that I just don’t understand what “true” love is because I’m not giving 100% of myself to each of my relationships (because, you know, it’s mathematically impossible and all that). People seem to feel the strong need to prop up their own lifestyle choices and to devalue mine, even though my being polyamorous doesn’t in any way directly affect their monogamous relationships. So why should they be angry? I think they get angry because they believe that my successful, happy, unapologetic polyamory does threaten their relationships. If they’ve sacrificed to be monogamous, they must be rewarded and, conversely, those who deviate from mononormativity must be punished. Our lack of suffering does not compute.

I’m not suggesting that this is a new phenomenon, or that it’s unique to polyamory. Quite the contrary. Normativity in all of its forms elicits this desire for secular piety on behalf of its adherents. Deviation from the norm is systematically demonized, most notably in popular culture (which is overwhelmingly heteronormative, sex-negative, pro-theist, etc.). If gay/polyamorous/freethinking people live their lives openly and happily, how can “normal” people maintain the fiction that their ways of living are worthy of praise and reward (especially in the absence of something as dramatic as an actual intervention of a deity, the full wrath of a state apparatus, etc.)?

I’m also not saying that people who obey normative rules are bad people. In fact, I think their obedience is largely due to their desire to be good people. And I also believe that they are aware of the sacrifices they make for normativity. Thus, they experience a real sense of loss when non-normative beliefs/practices are shown to be completely benign (or, gasp, rewarding). Studies of loss aversion have shown fairly consistently that humans tend to react much more negatively to losses than they react positively to gains. This is not only true in economic situations but in social ones as well.

Some people surely feel that monogamy involves no sacrifice at all. Given the statistics on infidelity within monogamous relationships (over 50%), I’m not sure we can fairly say that a majority of monogamous people see things that way, but certainly many do. I don’t think they get mad when we say we’re polyamorous and show that we’re happy that way.

However, I believe that most monogamous people are “weak” monogamists. They are monogamous by default, without ever really knowing alternatives exist. I say this, by the way, as someone who for more than 30 years thought exactly the same thing. “Weak” monogamists are aware that closing off a large part of our humanity (love/sexuality) to all but one person for our entire lives causes us suffering. In order for that suffering to be bearable, they must believe that the reward outweighs the sacrifice. This, for me, explains their often visceral reaction to our living (and loving) openly.

Polyamory challenges our culture’s dominant, cultural narrative about love/sexuality because it shows that stable, committed, loving relationships are still possible when all parties involve have other stable, committed, loving relationships. And challenging people’s dominant cultural paradigms, especially when those people haven’t examined those paradigms very deeply (one of the pernicious things about normativity is that it seems, to most members of a society, simply to be “natural,” not culturally constructed and reinforced)–makes people angry.