Revolution, love, and nonmonogamy

Posted February 4, 2008

Looking backward: The following piece is from almost five years ago, and my own views continue to evolve. Sometimes I feel like they devolve. However, I think that the subject is worth Left discussion and commentary, because, as my friend A. says, why don’t lefties fucking GET personal politics? We can rag on “social conservatives”, but often our own views come off as some kind of queasily tolerant personal-as-political Not In My Back Yard. So I am posting this, and will rebut it in the comments, and hope other people will chime in, too.


“Coming Out” as Poly?

I think I used to romanticize the notion of “coming out”, the same way that I romanticized the notion of being an armed rebel in the IRA or the FSLN or the FMLN or the Spanish Civil War. In my mind it was dangerous, heroic, exciting, adrenaline-filled, brave, proud, and sort of gloriously STUBBORN. All of those characteristics appealed to me. I’d known best friends and relatives who came out, in fact, and it was like that for them. I didn’t actually KNOW any IRA members, etc., though I’d met relatives of the Hunger Strikers and active service members of the IRA, and political refugees whose pasts were probably linked to armed struggle of various kinds. But “coming out”, if by that one means coming out as interested in or identifying as “polyamorous”… that’s not romantic. So far, I’d say it’s much more nerve-wracking, embarrassing, and just filled with social discomfort. It’s productive of long, awkward silences. It provokes throat-clearing and bitten lips and sideways glances and overly hearty “Really?”s And it has succeeded in being the only thing I can ever imagine doing that might, in fact, have shocked my family.

My family is three generations of atheists and two generations of revolutionary marxists. There have been (closeted) queers in every generation I can find, and openly gay men and dykes in the last two generations. No one has ever been shunned for their sexuality in my family, on either my mother’s or my father’s side. People might have politely ignored the implications of certain behaviors, in the 1920s or 1930s, but it’s hard to imagine no one knew. In some cases it is clear that EVERYONE knew. And then, the politics. It’s hard to shock the older generation when the older generation was on the barricades (figuratively speaking) and being arrested for Civil Rights marches and antiwar demonstrations (literally) before you were born. Oh, I guess I could shock them by losing my mind and becoming a Republican. Or, worse, a Democrat. But short of becoming suddenly stupid, there was never much of an opportunity for me to rebel. I sometimes wonder if I am doomed to perennial immaturity because I have NOT gone through the stage of rebelling against my parents.

I couldn’t even rebel via drugs, because my folks both smoked weed most evenings, watching Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. And I lay quaking in bed, imagining the cops bursting through the front door to arrest them. When my dad OFFERED me a toke -I was fourteen, at a party of grownup Socialist Workers Party opposition members I wasn’t interested in the least … (as I recall, we were all intently discussing whether the hijab and veil could EVER have any progressive character, and the position of women in the Iranian Revolution… but this was BEFORE the Embassy takeover…) And they didn’t care if I drank on the weekends, as long as I didn’t go too far. There wasn’t much left to rebel against, you know?

My sister managed. As she decided to pursue spirituality -not Christianity, though our great aunt was a nun, but sort of New Age crystals and affirmations. Stuff I had enormous contempt for at age 20, when she got into it (which should imply that I don’t have as much automatic contempt, now, having lived in the Bay Area for years). And she was a pacifist, too, which was kind of beyond the pale for our revolutionary family. She may even once have flirted with voting Democrat, though I think she remained pure even in the voting booth. But when she came out as a dyke (twice: once in high school and once in college) no one flickered an eyelid. My GRANDMOTHER told her “I’ve always thought that was a reasonable option.” My father did wistfully say, once in a while, that he thought it might just be a stage. And at the same time, he looked at me, wondering, unsure of MY sexuality, despite my sleeping with various men on his damn SOFA. He’s always kind of found me hard to define.

Well, now I’m even harder for him to define. And telling my father, stepmother, mother, and various comrades and friends that I am interested in the idea of polyamory… huh. I’ve finally had my own coming out experience. As I said, it hasn’t been particularly romantic or brave or glorious or adrenaline-filled. I don’t have any barricades to storm. I feel kind of foolish and exposed. I see the reactions of political comrades and just fellow union activists – and it follows that sequence described above. Blankness in the face. Shifting eyes, from the sign I carried to my face to the ground, back up to the sign, back down to my face, then off to the side. There are long gaps in the conversation. They don’t know what to say. In the Bay Area, few people are going to criticize anyone’s personal choice about his or her sex life, love life, sexual orientation, or lifestyle. But people (in my limited experience, so far) find it hard to know what to say.

For me, it’s been interesting. In January of 2003, an anarchist date mentioned two books to me, Deborah Anapol’s Polyamory, the New Love Without Limits, and Catherine Liszt and Dossie Easton’s The Ethical Slut. The first one didn’t light my fire, particularly. But the second one… the second one was like coming home, somehow. Finally there was a language to explain how I’d experienced my own early sexuality and the reflowering I’ve been having more recently. So much in that book was recognizable. Things I’d argued with my family members about years before suddenly resurfaced -for instance, one reason some of them seemed tempted to think that I was a dyke or at least bi was simply that I argued in favor of women claiming their sexuality and being full of sexual appetite and desire and lust and pure enjoyment. They could NOT get their heads around that notion. Not with a heterosexual woman. Or maybe, to be fair, not with a young heterosexual female relative, in a drunken conversation. But for them, I think that sex is part of an economy of scarcity, which is a notion I don’t understand at all, and a notion I have NEVER understood, from childhood. To that extent, and in that way, The Ethical Slut struck sounding chords in me, chords that had been muffled for too long. Joy and openness and multiplicity in sex, in human connection? That should be revolutionary. That should be part of sexual politics. That should be part of progressivism and the Left. That should be a pretty damn glorious Coming Out, in fact.


3 responses to “Revolution, love, and nonmonogamy”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Bravo Maeve. You do whatever feels right and appropriate to you. There is no need to “rebut’” or “define” or to “clarify theoretical position”. I am a bisexual man in NYC and I have been filled with nothing but dismay by the army of timid,bourg-y,faux-hetero sheep that have filled up my once rockin,sexy city.If I meet one more sad, limited worker-bee who fantasizes about a ridiculous penguinlike set up I’m going to go Cloverfield.I am a proud,very sucessful sex worker; although that might be considered to be hopelessly “lumpen” by old school movement standards, it has given me more insights into the human condition than most sociologists, social workers or, for that matter, investment bankers could ever dream of(and I have had all three as clients).This does NOT mean that I dismiss out of hand the fight for same-sex marriage or anyone’s right to prefer an exclusive partnership. But let it be stated that my skepticism and bank account have both been greatly enriched by the MOST ardent proponents of monogamy,both gay and straight.

  2.  Avatar

    Ha. Well, for one thing, I hadn’t written a rebuttal because I didn’t know this was going to go up as quickly as it did; I was under the impression that it was going to be used sometime around Valentine’s Day. Because that would be fitting. Sort of.

    I wrote it a few years ago, as I point out, and since that time… well, I was in — may still be in, it’s not entirely clear — a long term relationship, the famous “LTR” of personal ads and online dating which turned out to be monogamous. I found myself very much wanting monogamy with this person, probably because he is quite conventional himself, but also because some aspects of poly had begun to trouble me. This is all still very much a work in emotional progress for me, so my thoughts about it are not clearly theorized. Still, I’ll give it a go.

    In some ways, the simplest ways, nonmonogamy for me feels situational: with some partners, it seems to make sense, and with others, it doesn’t at all. I’m using the word nonmonogamy here instead of polyamory because part of what troubled me is that I never really felt comfortable with the community that self-identified around polyamory. Obviously, this is all anecdotal, but I felt that there were some generational differences in those who identify as poly — people who were in their fifties and up (the tail end of the Boomers, maybe?) seemed to view polyamory as something more related to geometric relationship configurations: triads, quads (seriously, these are the terms they used), and so on. And often they were creating multi-generational families in these shapes. Especially when that ended in being one man and more than one woman (and possibly more than one mother), that was not something that seemed particularly liberatory to me.

    The other terms that seem more identified with polyamory and not nonmonogamy include “primary” and “secondary”. Some people arrange things such that they are, and have, a primary partner, and then fairly formal secondary partners, and then maybe more informal play partners outside of that. Trying to balance those sorts of arrangements struck me as energy and time consuming, and productive of insecurity, if you were the secondary, and had no primary of your own. People who identify as poly might well object that nothing is sure or secure, and monogamous relationships require energy and time and hold the danger of pain, loss, and jealousy as well. I won’t dispute that.

    I do see problems with intensely focused, socially-sanctioned (often heteronormative) monogamous partnering. But, god, the relief and pleasure in receiving that social sanction. And the comfort in building a closed emotionally-bonded couple. I haven’t done that very often in my life, and its pleasures are intense and seductive. It seems to offer emotional security in a world that is often hostile to love and tenderness. I don’t feel very brave or revolutionary admitting that, but it’s true. We actually had an internal discussion of marriage, probably the apotheosis of this monogamous-pairing-with-social-sanction, last year, in a Solidarity Discussion Bulletin put together by the Feminist Commission. It was quite interesting, and I have wondered whether we might republish some of it in this webzine.

    What made nonmonogamy of the sort described in The Ethical Slut so appealing is that I do believe, without any doubt at all, that people have the capacity to love more than one person,in many, many different ways that are sometimes hard to define, and that having sex with more people than one at a time is fine — is part of breaking down the very sad, limiting concept of an economy of sexual scarcity. I think that sometimes sex is just one more way to relate to someone you care for and are attracted to. I think that that sort of nonmonogamy can be practiced in an ethical, caring way, by both men and women. It was what I pretty much instinctually felt (and practiced) when I was in my 20s. But that wasn’t as rigidly structured as what polyamory seems to me to be like. And it wasn’t really about building family.

    Where does this leave me now? There is much that is attractive about the theory of nonmonogamy, and much that is seductive about the comfort and social approval for monogamy. I find it confusing, to be honest. But I would like there to be more discussion, and more discussion that includes gender and politics and the famous “personal-is-political” ethos of feminism.

    maeve66 is a middle school teacher in a working class suburb of Oakland.

  3. Nathaniel Avatar

    So is there a rebuttal coming in the comments? You indicate your views have changed in the five years since you wrote this piece, and I’m curious how they’ve changed.