Rebranding polyamory does women no favours

Posted by: The Guardian | Date: August 27, 2013 | 3 Comments

Polyamory is the latest subversive and a la mode sexual practice to receive extensive media coverage. It appeals as a subject for to those interested in alternative lifestyles, but also attracts commentary from some deeply unpleasant folk who have trashed it alongside gay marriage. “What next?” ask the bigoted opponents of equal marriage. “Polygamy and marriage to your brother/cat/hedge trimmer?”

It is neither my business or concern as to how many sexual partners anyone has at any one time, and I genuinely could not care less how folk organise their relationships. But the co-opting and rebranding of polygamy, so that it loses its nasty association with the oppression of the most disadvantaged women, is as irresponsible as suggesting that because some women chose to enter high-end prostitution as a social experiment, all prostitution is radical and harmless.

Caroline Humphrey, a professor of collaborative anthropology at Cambridge University, has argued in favour of the legalisation of polygamy because, according to a number of women in polygamous marriages in Russia, “half a good man is better than none at all”. While polyamory is not the same as traditional polygamy – which has been practised for centuries under a strict code of patriarchy in communities where women and children have few if any rights – the co-opting of the sanitised version will further normalise a practice that is anything but liberating for women in this arrangement.

There is also the assumption that polyamory is an invention of a set of too-cool-for-school hipsters, who have recently discovered that exclusive couple-type relationships are so last season. However, it was radical feminists in the 1970s onwards that developed the notion of non-monogamy as a way to challenge patriarchal heterosexuality. The definition of polyamory as “ethical non-monogamy” currently doing the rounds sticks in my craw. Non-monogamy was deeply ethical. One could have as many sexual partners as desired but everything was honest and above board, with no one being deceived.

The type of non-monogamy radical feminists developed and practised involved no men. We were all lesbians starting off on a fairly equal playing field. Some of us involved with leftwing politics had previously been witness to or victims of men who had sexual access to as many women as they wanted, while women waited for her one partner to get round to paying her attention. In the meantime, women were pitted against each other while the men played a subtle game of divide and rule, and there were plenty of women to do the washing, childcare and provide emotional and sexual support for these oh-so alternative men.

The women were not necessarily any more sexually liberated than their married, monogamous sisters; in fact they would quite often complain of being treated far worse than a wife. It not only gave men permission to sleep around, but left women experiencing dreadful feelings of anxiety, low self-esteem and lack of confidence.

Elisabeth Sheff, a US-based sociologist who has studied polyamorous families since the mid-1990s, found that “despite the pronounced importance of gender equality to polyamorists”, it is not unusual for men to be drawn to it because they believe that it will lead to sex with lots of women. The modern proponents of polyamory tend to ignore gender dynamics as if patriarchy and the sexual inequality that it produces has disappeared. Many also forget that its practice today, unlike polygamy, is the choice of overwhelmingly white, affluent, university educated and privileged folk, with too much time on their hands.

My scepticism about polyamory is not about being anti-sex or stuffy, and I wish good luck to those in relationships, for love, sex or whatever, with five, six or 20 other folk. But let’s not pretend it will bring on the revolution any time soon. A true sexual revolution will have happened when there is consent and equality in every sexual encounter. Until then, polygamy is simply another way in which to have relationships under a system that gives significant sexual power to men over women. – Julie Bindel © Guardian News and Media 2013

Image – AFP


  • Christel

    This article is pretty much…dull. It states nothing new or unknown – Polygamy is generally patriarchal, cheating is crappy, and the patriarchy isn’t dead by a long shot.

    Conflating Polygamy with Polamory however, is just crap. The people who first coined the term ( it was Raven Kaldera @ deliberately chose it that way as a pointed break away from other non-monogamous relationship styles. We are not swingers, leather families,polygamists or polyandrists. We are polyamorists. It has a definition. Look it up.

    Calling polyamorists out for referring to their lifestyle as “ethical non-monogamy” is just having your trauma invade your reasoning. The Ethical bit is there precisely because of the patriarchy, woman abuse, unsafe sexual practices etc. We know about the scaly fellows drawn to open relationships seeking a gullible harem. We have talks about the topic. We make women in our circle aware of their behaviour, and educate them about their right to not be coerced or manipulated into non-monogamy that degrades them. We encourage our menfolk to look at their own behaviour, their own beliefs and assumptions, and pull up their patriarchal conditioning by the roots.

    Polyamory is not patriarchal, sexist or abusive. People are.

    As for your statement about polyamory’s popularity among the white educated elite – ever thought about that clearly? Why do statistically more educated, liberated and financially independant woman choose this lifestyle?

    Because they CAN, while their less privilaged sisters have to take what they are told they can get.

    It is very well known that patriarchal structures persist more efficiently when surrounded by an environment of poverty and lack of education. Making it out as if Polyamory is just the newest hipster fashion accessory is just an insult wrapped in lazy thinking.

    The reason polyamorists are so passionate and outspoken about their lifestyles (when they can afford to be in out of the closet safely) is that it offers an opportunity to educate women about their right to be respected equals in their relationships, not just notches on a bedpost or breeders or housemaids. It’s about giving them permission to express their sexuality with the same freedom as men do, and demand safer sexual practices that protect them and their children from the ravages of STD’s.

    I live in South Africa. We have one of the highest incidences of Aids in the world. Our president, who was accused and acquitted of raping an HIV positive woman and then taking a shower to avoid infection, has 5 (no wait is it 6 now?) wives according to local traditional custom. Our rape statistics are the highest in the world – not one of the highest. THE highest.

    When I give talks on radio shows or a journalist publishes my story in the paper, the most encouraging comments I get are not from white, middle class university graduates. They are from average Jane women who perk up and go “Hell yeah! Why shouldn’t a woman get to have more than one husband! Gender Equality GO GO GO!” or “If you’re going to have multiple relationships, just be honest about it for God’s sake, and wear a condom!”

    Because here, where polygamy isn’t societally taboo, or practiced only in one state by a very small religious faction like the mormon’s, but by any man who can afford the bride price and has the inclination, these ideas are so utterly revolutionary that they are really opening up a conversation that leads to women becoming more educated about their rights and freedoms.

    I’m not saying polyamory is a panacea or an instant cure. Its not going to cause the downfall of patriarchal polygamy in my country any time soon, but at the very least some few women somewhere will think twice about getting into a relationship like that because of hearing me speak my truth – that there are men out there who do not think of women as chattels and slaves, but as partners and friends and equals and that she shouldn’t settle for anything less.

    If you extend our existing legislation on women’s equality properly then the legality of polygamy (as protected by our laws) should immediately include polyandry also – or render polygamy as it exists in our country sexist by definition – and for the women in our country who are only just embracing feminism in its infant form for the first time, this tends to stick in the craw.

    Whenever I talk on the radio or publish a national news article on polyamory, they begin to call this out. They begin to talk about demanding reforms in our judiciary. They start thinking about demanding reforms from their Chieftains, from their traditional healers, from their husbands and their sons. Maybe somewhere a hundred years from now, a hundred activists after me, this will make a difference to our country. But it is still constructive and useful for me to think of polyamory as a tool for fighting the patriarchy – because where I come from IT WORKS.

    • Des Carter

      Way to go Chrystel !
      Well said.
      The ” almighty” patriarchal system
      has got us into too much shit .
      We have got to get real with ourselves and accept what isn’t working and have the courage to find new ways.
      Equality freedom activist

  • Feral Grace

    I can’t believe the Mail and Guardian actually published this rubbish. Thank you Christel for your very well put response,