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Between the Poly-pushers and the Mono-mongers

One of the more recent and problematic ideologies that has been embraced by left-wing movements, organizations, and working groups is the ideology of polyamory.  A sexual politics that rejects monogamy as retrograde, polyamory is promoted by some as a necessary radicalism––a rejection of the conservatism that is supposedly the essence of monogamy––a qualification for being properly left.  My issue with this ideology is not moralistic but political: I do not see polyamory as essentially more progressive than monogamy, and I am deeply suspicious of how this claim of poly-radicalism can replace material political struggle with an idealist body-politics.

bell hooks once asked and interviewer rhetorically, "Don't you think the biggest lie of our contemporary liberation movements is that who you fuck radicalizes you?"  We can add how to the who as we reconsider the warning behind hooks' question in the context of poly-radicalism.  The point she was making with this question was that "[w]e have to move past the idea that our sexual preferences radicalize our consciousness" because if we do not then our politics will amount to little more than "liberal individualism."  A politics of sexual practice in this manner cannot replace material struggle if we wish to pursue a better society.

The political motivation of the "poly-pushers" (as one of my friends dubbed them once) certainly seems properly left.  We know that the monogamy that emerged during capitalism, and cohered around the puritan and horrendously patriarchal nuclear family, was a building block of capitalist society.  This family, and the gender and property roles it has veiled, is also the "natural order" for reactionary mono-mongers amongst the religious right and banal liberals.  Since the spectre of "family values" (treated as eternal though not really that old) is often summoned from its grave for multiple conservative or liberal reasons, perhaps it is time that we exorcize this ghost once and for all.  Pushing polyamory as the new sexual normativity, however, is not automatically anti-capitalist.

Some poly-pushers maintain that their sexual practice is anti-capitalist because of its more radical understanding of love.  Monogamy, it is argued, confines love to the ghetto of marriage.  We are taught to see love as scarce, as something we can only find with that "one special person" (the Hollywood ideology of "true love"), and so we are thrown into competition with others in pursuit of a single love.  Fair enough: there is definitely some truth to this claim.  But leaving aside the problem that poly-pushers define love in the same simplistic manner as mono-mongers (as romantic and/or sexual), capitalist logic can easily accomodate polyamory as well.

Overconsumption and overproduction also define capitalism.  Thus, wanting to have as much sex with as many people as possible is very capitalist.  The concept of the family has been re-articulated over and over throughout the long nightmare of capitalism, and capitalism will not fall simply by a bunch of people pursuing multiple lovers and trying to fuck it away.  Libertinage and bohemianism have always been the practice of the bourgeoisie; polyamory can easily be reconciled with the brutality of class society.  I am not arguing that polyamory is essentially capitalist––that would be just as idealist as the poly-pushers' argument about monogamy.  The point is that neither polyamory or monogamy are inherently revolutionary.

Moreover, polyamory is not very new.  In fact, prior to capitalism there were feudal and tributary polyamories that were intensely patriarchal: polygamy.  Here we must recall Engels' comments about how, in comparison to polygamoy, "[m]onogamy was a great historical advance."  And though he also notes, in the same passage, that monogamy "at the same time… inaugurated, along with slavery and private wealth, that epoch, lasting until today, in which every advance is likewise a relative transgression," Engels' analysis demonstrates that neither polyamory nor monogamy are by themselves revolutionary. (Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, 94)  Most importantly, neither sexual practice is linked to a single mode of production: both polyamory and monogamy have existed with and without capitalism, their characteristics mediated and partially determined by more concrete social relations.

Nor is the radical fetishization of polyamory especially new.  The left has tried this before, but because we leftists often have short historical attention spans––and waste so much time and space trying to recreate the radical revolutionary wheel––we forget the utter failure of previous radicals' poly-pushing.  Hippy radicalism pushed for free love, a rejection of nuclear family monogamy, and sexual freedom.  Like today's poly-pushers, the hippy love gurus made sexual practice essential to their political practice.  The result, as we now know, was a de-radicalization of the free love advocates and a re-radicalization of those who founded their political praxis on a rejection of sexual revolution politics.

Cell 16, one of the first radical feminist groups in North America, emerged partly in response to poly-radical ideology.  And the reason Cell 16 would promote celibacy was not out of conservative puritanism.  They understood that the sexual revolution was thoroughly patriarchal, that it was replicating the feudal practice of polygamy, and that it was not radical/progressive for women to be told they were "counter-revolutionary" by refusing to "get with it" and participate in hippy neo-harems.  Thus celibacy, in this specific instance, was revolutionary whereas both polyamory and monogamy were judged regressively patriarchal.  Again, the point is not to elevate one sexual practice (or in this case lack of sexual practice) over another––I am not claiming that celibacy is inherently radical––but to indicate that no sexual practice is essentially more revolutionary than another.  It's a bit like arguing that the colours red and black are essentially revolutionary even though fascist flags and uniforms have used these colours with as much frequency as communists and anarchists.

In any case, the experience of the North American and European left in the 1960s-1970s should make us wary of poly-pushing.  Why is it that so many [straight] men preach the radical "virtues" of polyamory?  By mistaking a sexual practice for a material politics we do not ask the question "whose practice and for whom."  We also fail to see how the practice of polyamory, like monogamy, is shot through with class contradictions: white male heterosexist privilege and bourgeois notions of beauty can be renormalized in polyamory––even if the poly-pushers claim to be queer positive.  It can be radical in form but reactionary in essence.

Finally, the pseudo-radicalism of polyamory maintains the stale dogma that love is primarily romantic and sexual.  The poly-pusher Bible, The Ethical Slut, is a good example of this anti-holistic approach to love.  (This book is also a good example of petty bourgeois politics masquerading as progressive: "sex is good for you" is the primary thesis and if we just replaced "sex" with "vegetables" it would be nothing more than one of those health manuals that bourgeois environmentalists seem to love.)  Love is so much more than sex and romance, camaraderie and intimacy larger than infatuation and lust, but the puritan hatred of sex engenders the binary fetishization.  Michel Foucault, who wasn't wrong all of the time, wrote at the end of the first volume of The History of Sexuality:
"We are often reminded of the countless procedures which Christianity once employed to make us detest the body; but let us ponder all the ruses that were employed for centuries to make us love sex, to make the knowledge of it desirable and everything said about it precious.  Let us consider the stratagems by which we were induced to apply all our skills to discovering its secrets, by which we were attached to the obligation to draw out its truth, and made guilty for having failed to recognize it for so long.  These devices are what ought to make us wonder today.  Moreover, we need to consider the possibility that one day, perhaps, in a different economy of bodies and pleasures, people will no longer quite understand how the ruses of sexuality, and the power that sustains its organization, were able to subject us to that austere monarchy of sex, so that we became dedicated to the endless task of forcing its secret, of exacting the truest of confessions from a shadow. […] The irony of this deployment is in having us believe that our 'liberation' is in the balance." (Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 159, emphasis added.)
Perhaps we should take Foucault's warning seriously.


  1. What a fantastic post! I absolutely had to link to it on my blog.

  2. Thanks for another interesting post. While I do believe the personal is political, I don't think that what someone does in bed necessarily makes them any more or less revolutionary. At the same time, I think it's important for people to think about why they engage in the kinds of relationships they do.

    and p.s. I love the cartoon you linked to. Mactivism at its best!

  3. Thanks Xtina. Definitely the personal is political, and sometimes I think that this polyamory-as-automatically-progressive position does demonstrate this tried and true maxim: the radical feminist promotion of the "personal is political" was partly raised against 1960s poly behaviour as well as monogamy, after all.

    People do need to think about why they engage in these relationships, and that goes for both those who embrace polyamory and those who practice monogamy.

  4. It's hard for me to understand how running around screwing all comers counts as anything but a really good way to contract VD.

    It smacks of liberalism masquerading as radicalism.


    1. Actually, most poly people I know are real sticklers about safe sex practices, and there is research showing that people in open relationships are less likely to contract diseases than people in monogamous relationships who cheat.

    2. While I tend to find this kind of statistical evidence dubious because of confirmation bias and crude empiricism (i.e. conservatives are most likely to trot out counter evidence), I agree completely with the sentiment. The ultimate fact is that there is no statistical correlation between the rise of venereal disease and the practice of polyamory. Putting the two variables side by side is establishing a false connection between things that are generally unrelated.

  5. To be fair to the poly promoters, they would argue that it's more than just having sex with everyone. It's more about a practice in general and a rejection of monogamy as "natural" and "moral." Some of them do make good critiques of monogamy, which I mentioned above.

    Which is fair enough: my problem is that those who promote it often do act in a very "I-want-to-get-in-everyone's-pants" kind of way and seem to think that it is a practice that is by itself radical... and that is where it does become liberal individualism.

  6. The personal is political when it challenges the status quo. It should however not be the beginning and the end of one's radical activism. It should also not be viewed in isolation without a larger context.

  7. Polyamorists seem to me to be absolutely right that heteromonogamy arose as a modernization of ancient marriage practices that regarded women as property and allowed for multiple wives. It reduced the acceptable number of wives to one, but at the cost of a massive subculture/black market of adultery. Perhaps the politics of polyamory and its relation to existing compulsory heteromonogamy can be illustrated by contrasting communal societies to an actual socialist state.

    Communes in a capitalist economy do not overthrow capitalism, but they do breed a new level of awareness of the possibilities of a post-capitalist economy. I speak from experience having been involved in one of the most successful communes from the 60s era, which still exists. I believe that as long as a commune doesn't attempt a complete social withdrawal like the Hutterites, it is a worthwhile hothouse that can feed into a wider socialist revolution. The fact, however, is that most communes distance themselves from working-class struggles.

    Similarly, polys don't overthrow the heteromonogamous order, but rather breed a new level of awareness of the possibilities of a post-heteromonogamous society. If the poly-advocates attach themselves to a socialist movement (though most are closer to anarchism, in my experience), they can fulfill a beneficial role in raising awareness that can inform mass struggles. There are important undertheorized aspects of human sexuality that lie within the question of polyamory.

    A few of these crucial questions include, what are the human interests in overcoming the commodified and time-constrained sexuality which exists now under capitalism? Is it enough to leave the resolution of this issue to some future revolutionary moment? Surely there is a dialectical movement that can be grasped in the shift from pre-capitalist sexual norms to capitalist ones? If the overcoming of capitalist heteromonogamy isn't a mere "polyamorous lifestyle" what is it?

    To return to the "black market of adultery," statistics indicate that as much as 5% of the married population is engaged in extramarital affairs at any given moment. Some would say that number is too low. If we then consider that nearly every one can admit to experiencing a strong sexual attraction to someone other than their primary partner, we have a situation in which sexual desire is systemically alienated, with similarities to that of our labor power.

    The reason that the swingers, open marriages, and group marriages of the 60s didn't simply disappear, but morphed into polyamory is that just like the lesbian, gay, and transgender movements, there is something here that capitalism cannot easily assimilate and commoditize. Namely, the human desire for physical intimacy, call it love or not.

  8. Good points: the commune analogy is great. So is the point about "undertheorized aspects of human sexuality that lie within the question of polyamory." Again, my problem is more of how - as the previous commenter put it - how the personal is used as an utter substitution for the political (and sometimes, I should add, the feminist adage "the personal is political" can be used to gauge the way some poly-advocates demand that movement women should sleep with them to be "political"). And then, again, there's the fact that polyamory can be as ideologically "capitalist" as monogamy, etc.

    Indeed the adultery statistics are apt (the only reason I didn't go there was because that was not the point of this post), and parallels Marx and Engels' statement about how "nothing is more ridiculous than the virtuous indignation of the bourgeois at the community of women which, they pretend, is to be openly and officially established by the Communists. […] Our bourgeois, not content with having the wives and daughters of their proletariat at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other's wives. Bourgeois marriage is in reality a system of wives in common..."

    There are definitely good reasons to deconstruct the current family structure and its related values and, though I agree that in some ways the "bourgeois family will vanish when its complement vanishes," I am also aware (being a Maoist-type marxist) that the ideology of the bourgeois family can linger into successive modes of production.

    I am not at all convinced that those who are most vocal about polyamory, and push it as part of their political practice, are actually engaged in something that is materially progressive. This is not to say I'm morally opposed to polyamory - I'm not opposed to polyamory, or other non-monogamous ways of being, anymore than I'm opposed to monogamy - but that I don't think it's intrinsically radical. Nor do I think that it is as simply as "sexual desire [being] systemically alienated" - I definitely do not think it has similarities to our labor power, and I think that is a very non-materialist, idealist way of substituting body politics for concrete analysis (which is why I mentioned bell hooks' critique above). I also know that sexual desire can be systemically alienated in polyamorous relationships. Moreover, I think desire itself is alienated by the taboo/fetish binary of sexual desire over other types of desire (the reason for ending with the quote from Foucault), and this binary is promoted by traditional family values monogamy [taboo] and polyamor [fetish].

    I'm not at all sure that the majority of those who push polyamory actually raise the level of awareness of a "post-heteromonogamous" society since so many of the most vociferous pushers (not the practitioners) are heterosexual. There was a lot of very good left feminist critique of swinging, open marriages, etc. that so many of the "you-have-to-be-poly" crowd has failed to incorporate into their behaviour.

  9. I do a lot of thinking about the relation of sexuality to human emancipation. I am not satisfied with most feminist or socialist or anarchist answers, though each have something substantive to contribute. While sexuality may not be strictly analogous to labor-power, I do think there is a great deal of truth to the Freudian theory that sexual repression leads to greater violence, aggressiveness, and competitiveness. This seems to suggest to me that sexual repression and its opposite sexual commercialization both work for capitalism's benefit. While I haven't taken my philosophy very far in this direction, an initial attempt is found here on my blog:

  10. I was reminded of this post today when reading this:

    While here you've made a cogent case for why all sexual politics out of the mouths of men is suspect, drawing on the words of theorists and activists, and showing its twisted relationship with Capitalism, this is the kind of "but my boyfriend's a cool porn-lovin' bro!" Anarchists get saddled with. (Sad part is Mujeres Libres were anti-prostitution and anti-free love but Anarchists act like they didn't exist unless it suits them to remind skeptical women that Anarchism has totally attracted women over the years! Meanwhile not bothering to know anything about their rightly sex-negative politics.)

    Thanks for doing what you do. :)

  11. Thanks for the comment and the link... And thanks for the reminder about Mujeres LIbres––I forgot all about them when I was writing this. I saw Libertarias years and years ago, back when I was an anarchist, and thought it was amazing... except for the racism at the ending (it's the brown people who are the rapists argument that destroyed an otherwise brilliant film).

  12. This article, to my reading, glosses over the enormous social and economic privileges conferred upon monogamous relationships in our world today. These privileges are most overtly present in the modern institution of marriage, with its origins in the purchase and enslavement of women by men. Marriage, in most contemporary nation-states, has monogamy as its foundation, and confers economic and social privileges entrenched by state and religious institutions. But the broader economic privileges of monogamy can be summed up as simply as the old adage "two can live as cheaply as one," while the social privileges are supported by a vast swath of media that includes dating sites, reality tv shows and "romance" literature and film.

    I describe monogamy as an oppressive social structure because it cannot exist without a relationship based on power and control. It is, fundamentally, a social contract between individuals that limits their actions, behavior and free will. In this sense it does, in fact, have parallels to capitalist relations and runs contrary to the tenets of anarchism.

    This argument is based on an analysis of monogamy as a socially-constructed lifestyle choice and relationship model, rather than a set of actions and behavior (I am unclear on whether your article is describing monogamy as an activity or as a social identity, or both?). "Non-monogamous" relations in the form of cheating, prostitution, bigamy and other non-mandated sexual activities are pervasive within societies that privilege monogamy as a social ideal. In fact, monogamy is dependent upon these harmful social side-effects in the same way that a capitalist society is dependent upon surplus labour.

    Both celibacy and polyamory are more radical alternatives to monogamy because they reject the power relationships, and social and economic privileges, conferred by monogamy. You are right to assert that celibate and polyamorous lifestyles will not, in themselves, launch the revolution. Some forms of polyamory and celibacy are not incompatible with capitalism in the same way that some feminisms are not incompatible with capitalism, instead seeking equality for women within a capitalist system. It is also entirely valid to suggest that patriarchal and capitalist relationships can be replicated within a polyamourous or celibate community; but I fail to see how this is fundamentally different than the sexist and racist modes of relating we often see replicated in anti-capitalist movements.

    For these reasons, I would argue that a rejection of monogamy, like the adoption of feminist analysis, does support the struggle to eliminate structures of power and control that limit human freedoms and disadvantage those excluded from privileged ideals. In this way, adopting a polyamorous or celibate lifestyle can be compatible with anarchist and other radical left economic and social politics, whereas conforming to a monogamous lifestyle may not be.

    1. This article does not deny that monogamy is also plugged into capitalism, nor do I maintain at any point that it isn't a privileged relationship connected to conservative values. (In fact, if you go up the comment string, you will see that there is a previous discussion about this.) What I am arguing is that polyamory is not automatically connected to a radical politics as some (but not you) would assume.

      An acceptance of polyamory, just like the default acceptance of monogamy, can easily be permitted by capitalism. Do I think that relationships post-capitalism will be radically redefined? Yes: I don't think they will at all resemble monogamy, but I also don't think they will resemble the polyamory that certain organizations have fetishized. For not only can polyamory easily be adaptable to capitalism, but it also carries a certain feudal residue... And the way it is practiced now, simply by rejecting the current monogamous status quo, is not liberatory. In fact, leftist organizations and communities have had serious issues with interpersonal behaviour and discipline because of a commitment to polyamory as automatically more liberating than monogamy (and vice versa, defaulting on monogamous "pairings" has also been a problem).

      I also agree that the normative privileging of monogamy creates a black-market of non-monogamy. None of this has to do with my argument which is about leftists mandating polyamory behaviour at this period in time as being automatically liberating and somehow possibly outside of capitalist social relations. My argument was about the push, within political communities, to pressure activists into adopting this behaviour (usually initiating from the men), with the claim that polyamory is essentially more "radical." Adopting this behaviour, rather than simply operating according to the idea that post-capitalism will ultimately change the way sexual behaviour is learned and/or practiced, is nothing more than lifestyle politics. That was my argument, and it doesn't seem you essentially disagree with it, so much of your comments here are beside the point. (Also, if you look up the comment string, to my discussions with commenter "Charly", whose pro-polyamory position I agree with, you'll see where I clarify what might not have been evident from a cursory read.)

      My article, then is describing monogamy and polyamory as a social practice - so not at all the bifurcation between social identity or activity that you suggest but, *both* – and this is key. A different sexual practice will be produced by a different mode of production, but not vice versa. The binary of taboo/fetish will be eliminated and it is not even clear if we can call this polyamory in the way it is generally practiced now. The reason I ended the initial article with a quote from Foucault was precisely because of this reason.

    2. How is celibacy/polyamory in any way not depend on power and control? It is a facet of all human relationships. One simply need recognize that people's actions are shaped by social norms/material constraints/etc that they inherited rather than agreed too, or recognize humans as embodied beings. Denying the urge to bond physically with another is a result of power/control as is reshaping one's emotional reactions to polyamorous norms (hardly different from the commitments monogamists make). Since power is omnipresent, the real question is what kinds of power/control is desirable? This post reads like someone hawking liberal individualism and neutrality myths.

    3. Wow this is a pretty ignorant reading of the post. Where do I say that power (though you have to qualify "power" because right now you have an idealist reading where it is just "omnipresent" and akin to a Platonic force) does not have to do with sexual relationships? What I am arguing is that problematic social relations underwrite both practices and that, this is most important, one is not inherently more revolutionary than another.

      It is bizarre you would find this liberal when this kind of sex based ideology is a hallmark of liberal ideology since it assumes one's individual sexual practice is inherently revolutionary.

  13. I think this is certainly an interesting read. As someone who is currently a part of a poly relationship, I am obviously biased toward polamory, but I certainly agree that it isn't necessarily more radical or better than monogamy.

    Certainly, the real issue isn't necessarily the number of partners you do or don't have but how each partner is treated. In the past, polygamy (specifically, polygyny - one man with multiple wives) has been incredibly oppressive to women in the past. And when monogamy became more widely practiced, things didn't really get any better. Marriage has been manipulated for thousands of years in order to maintain patriarchal standards and power. In modern times most people like to think that marriage is about "true love" but in reality it is, at its core, merely a way to maintain the process of patrilineal inheritance. For untold years, men have wanted to maintain their power and protect their legacy. The best way to ensure that their male heirs would inherit their accumulated wealth and power and that their family line would live on was to shackle women's bodies and sexualities within the confines of marriage. Women have been consistently shamed for any sexual desire or having more than one partner throughout most of recorded history; after all, how else will a man know that the sons a woman bears are his?

    This is why I personally prefer polyamory, at least in theory. Ideally, the concept is that unlike what all of the romantic comedies and princes fairy tales have tried to brainwash us with, love is not finite. It is totally possible to have romantic inclinations toward more than one person, and one should not necessarily have to choose between having one hypothetical partner over the other. In this scenario, women are not constricted by one path, on which they must find their one true love/soulmate/prince charming etc., but rather they are free to explore their options and find their own form of happiness. Relationships then become more about personal fulfillment and mutual benefit rather than reinforcing patriarchal notions about preserving bloodlines or family names. Because why in this modern time should we care about bloodlines or inheritance? It's been rather irrelevant to society, at least in my view, for quite some time.

    Of course, just because it's different doesn't mean it's inherently radical or progressive. It's incredibly easy for poly relationships to carry over many of the problematic aspects of monogamous relationships because regardless of how many women a man is seeing he will still have the privilege of being a man. There are many poly relationships that have come to resemble less of a radical shift in our concept of relationships and more of a polygynous structure of ancient times. There is a fine line between poly and harem, and it's important that we all acknowledge that.

    1. Good points and I don't disagree. I'm happy that you got the overall point of this piece–-for some reason, there are people who falsely assumed I was arguing for the moral superiority of monogamy.

  14. As someone who has practiced polyamory as a person of color, and writes about it (currently only within the realms of academia) I really enjoyed reading this piece. Everywhere I look, polyamory has no theory behind it, nor does it have much critique. There is so much more to understand. Even though I do think it has the potential to be revolutionary, it can also be "liberal individualism", acting out capitalistically, and for narcissism (although not discussed much by simplistic poly advice with no substance). There is much more understanding to be gained, I think, of monogamy and polyamory. Much of the discussion of polyamory is within a.bourgeois framework (I could even say the same for monogamy), as you stated, and thats what I find to be the biggest issue. People who are not white middle or upper class, are..rarely discussed, interviewed, or rarely are writers on the topic of polyamory. Why is "love" and "sex" so simply defined and why do they seem to be deemed scarce? Lots of thoughts after reading this article, tks


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