Sex and Love are not Consumer Goods
On paper, there are a lot of things I like about polyamory.
After all, who says that when it comes to romantic love we should only love one person? Humans are capable of having multiple deep friendships at any one time, and each one is unique, and each relationship is exclusive because what is created and what is shared can never be replicated. Why shouldn’t we reimagine our romantic relationships? The traditional model of monogamous heterosexual couples only makes sense in a society which needs to define whose offspring is whose so as to transmit property. Feeling jealous and insecure when the person we like sleeps with someone else only makes sense in a society obsessed with linking sex-appeal to self-worth, and where people are constantly in competition with one another. The fact that our love and family lives be defined by private property and competition is just depressing.
I’ve always been drawn to polyamory as a way of questioning these traditional models and building healthier relationships, but the reality has disappointed me. When I juggled multiple intimate relationships, I always felt like I was spread too thin and couldn’t properly invest myself in any of them. Sometimes I felt like for my partners, polyamory was just a way of feeling good about themselves, like they were avant-garde and questioning the status quo whereas, in reality, all they were doing was lacking respect and kindness towards more than one person at a time.
And then I had a conversation which made me understand what I felt so uncomfortable about, how, ultimately, polyamory can be objectifying and just seem like an extension of our unhealthy consumer culture.
One of my friends is very into polyamory, and for years she has maintained multiple, loving relationships with several men, relationships based on respect and affection. She currently is involved with four men, and each relationship has the same weight in her life. She tells me that she was very happy, that she felt more herself than in a traditional couple. “I can pick who I want to see depending on my mood,” she said. Sometimes she’ll want to go see the funny one if she just wants to joke around with someone, sometimes she’ll go see the deep intense emo guy if she feels like have deep intense emo conversations. One of her guys enjoys hiking and so she’ll organise trips with him for that, and another is in a band so she’ll go over and jam.
The four guys she was into weren’t her boyfriends, each seemed to serve a particular function. It was like she went out to a supermarket to buy a human for each mood she was in, and it made me think that in some ways, polyamory really is a reflection of consumer culture, of the idea that more will always be better, that instead of fixing something we should buy a new one. The way we treat material objects as disposable is messed up, it is destroying our planet, and it is making us unhappy by convincing us that we can purchase a solution for everything, rather than make changes to our society and our lives. More is always better is a bad enough motto when it comes to material objects, it is far worse when it is applied to human beings.
Humans aren’t only good for one thing, and their value comes from what is good and bad about them, from how they make us laugh when we are in the mood and how they piss us off when we are not.
In our society, people are already treated like they are disposable. Work contracts that are becoming increasingly precarious, like the UK and Germany’s zero-hour contracts, are a sign of that. So is the fact that having a decent social security net is now seen not as something which individuals are entitled to but something which is a bonus which can be chipped away at if needed. States are increasingly relying on NGOs to provide for basic human needs. Neoliberalism treats humans like they don’t matter. Money is what matters. Only humans with money are treated as though they matter and even that is a farce.
In the face of neoliberalism, it is important that with family and friends, in our intimate circles, we make sure that humans are given the respect and dignity they deserve. That they are not treated as though they were disposable, that they have a place where they can be truly themselves, for better or for worse.
I’m a big traveler and have lived in several countries, including ones where community is still a supreme value, and individualism is not yet widespread, and it made me realise what was wrong with social relations in the West. I’ve made friends who felt like family, where ties were made of true, unconditional love. Where people could make mistakes, be really annoying but once you were friends that didn’t matter because you put up with them anyway, and stood up for them, and told them openly they were being douchebags.
In the West, not being annoying is seen as the ultimate value. That isn’t the case in many countries in the world, where you can speak loudly on the phone in public without getting glared at in a passive-aggressive way, where people wake others up easily and turn up unannounced to see friends or neighbours. What is seen as rude isn’t to put people out but to not be tolerant and not take people in. The UK, where I am from, is the exact opposite. Everyone is constantly trying not to disturb, not to put people out. That is seen as politeness, whereas in reality, it has created a collective form of cold rudeness. The most important thing in life isn’t to not disturb anyone. Don’t people want to be disturbed? Isn’t that just what interacting with other people is about?
In romantic relationships, it’s the same thing. We are supposed to value the bad times as well as the good. It is supposed to feel good to be there when the other person isn’t doing well just as much as when times are great. There is supposed to be an element of unconditionality in our relationships, it’s supposed to be about giving and taking, not just taking. About sharing one's self and one's life, letting someone in and entering someone else. Oops, that sounded dirtier then it was supposed to.
Maybe polyamory could work if it was possible to provide this amount of implication into each individual intimate relationship, but it’s hard to see how anyone could have the time. Romantic relations take more time than friendship. You can’t give that time to everyone. You can’t be available for everyone to phone you at three in the morning because they feel like shit. When they’re seeing someone, a lot of people have a tendency to give up on their friendships, to have a lot less time to see other people than when they are single. If you have several romantic relationships at the same time, how would you have time to do things properly, and still maintain other important relationships?
The problem with heterosexual relationships as they are today is that that time invested in a relationship is often one-sided. The woman generally provides more support, does more of the emotional labour and sacrifices more of herself for the relationship than the man. She is the one who unconditionally puts up with the man’s faults. She is the one who provides the energy necessary to make a relationship work despite the presence of two imperfect humans. The very idea of unconditional love for better or for worse is something that is often used to guilt women. It’s a mechanism that comes up for things like domestic labour: who takes care of the kids and does the washing-up. Women are made to feel guilty for not being happy to do more than their fair share because love is supposed to give without counting. A love which only goes one way.
Up until now, romantic relationships haven’t been about sharing, they have been about sacrifice, usually the woman’s. We could rebalance that. Educate boys so that they are more empathic, make them more able and willing to provide their share of emotional labour. To do this, we would need to stop disregarding those traits seen as feminine: gentleness, empathy.
Polyamory is on the rise because traits associated with the masculine are still seen as superior to those seen as feminine. Steps forward in gender equality have long been about enabling women to take on “masculine” traits, rather than questioning the hierarchy between what is seen as feminine and what is seen as masculine. Men have been polyamorous for centuries: in the upper classes, having a wife and one or several secret mistresses was the norm. Men would have several intimate relationships at a time. The idea of more is always better, when it comes to sex, is traditionally associated with men, for whom sleeping around is celebrated, unlike for women who are criticised for it.
So focusing on polyamory as a solution for the ills of the traditional couple, in a way, means continuing to favour the “masculine” over the “feminine”. Rather than multiplying relationships and investing ourselves less, we need to give more value to traits seen as feminism, to gentleness and altruism. We need to rebalance who invests time and energy in the relationship and make things more equal.
I would love to hear from people whose experiences with monogamy or polyamory have led them to different conclusions, so do comment below, whether you agree or disagree!