Recently, someone on one of the poly mailing lists posted a quote and asked for opinions on it. The quote itself, which condemns polyamory, looks like this:
People who claim to enjoy being `poly’ must steel themselves
against jealousy, an emotion that should, by rights, be a warning sign
that they are doing something wrong. The fact that they feel it, or
have to try desperately not to feel it when they have to share someone
they care about with someone else, is probably the clearest indication
there is that this lifestyle is not at all natural for human beings.
The proof of this lies in the fact that if it came down to it, if they
absolutely had to choose one person from their threesome or group to
be with – just one – every single one of them would be able to make
that choice. Everyone has a preference, even among people they care
about. Everyone knows the one person they want to be with more than
I did a quick Google search ad discovered that this quote is an excerpt from a much longer article on monogamy at http://andtheylivedhappilyeverafter.com/48.htm.
The article has a lot of problems–so many, in fact, that it’s difficult to know where to begin. The biggest problems with the article (and the quote) are sloppy reasoning, logical fallacies, prejudice, bigotry, factual untruths, and sweeping misgeneralizations.
My response to the article got a little long.
To begin at the beginning:
The article’s first mention of “polyamory” reads “The only argument that’s left, then, is that promiscuity is just more fun. It’s too boring, opponents of monogamy say. It just isn’t exciting enough, being with one person all the time. Some groups have even christened this lifestyle with an official sounding name – “polyamory” – referring to themselves as simply “poly” and maintaining, quite honestly, that they do not see the value in exclusive relationships and would rather carry on several meaningful, if transient, relationships at once.”
Already, the author is succumbing to sloppiness and flawed rhetoric, assuming that “polyamory” and “promiscuity” are one and the same, and that polyamorous people engage in “transient” relationships. This betrays a profound ignorance, one born out of the author’s desperate desire to characterize anyone who’s not monogamous as being an irrepressible horndog desperate to fuck the next hot babe.
In fact, many people who claim monogamy are quite promiscuous; serial monogamy is little more than a non-overlapping promiscuity. On the other hand, many polyamorous people form long-term, stable romantic relationships; I’ve been in simultaneous relationships which have lasted eighteen and ten years, longer than a significant number of marriages in this country. And there is a form of polyamory called “polyfidelity” in which the people involved do not have any ‘outside’ lovers at all; a polyfidelitous family looks a lot like a monogamous family, except that there happen to be more than two people involved.
But the author is not going to let facts stand in her way, oh my no. The essay goes on to say “It’s more fulfilling, they claim, sharing your life with several partners, never being truly intimate with anyone.”–which makes the absurd and rather facile argument that it is not possible to be truly intimate with someone if you have another relationship as well.
And it gets better! The author then goes on to judge all of the polyamorous community with profound and quite startling ignorance; “I might actually believe them, I might actually defer to them and acknowledge that while it doesn’t work for me, it obviously does for them. I might…if it wasn’t so painfully obvious that these people are having anything but fun, are anything but excited, and are exactly what they claim to be avoiding: bored out of their minds.”
Bored? Is she for real?
Now I don’t doubt that there are poly folk who are bored; and, for that matter, I don’t doubt that there are monogamous people who are bored. For any class of people, you can find individuals who are bored; there are lawyers who are bored, Italian Americans who are bored, redheads who are bored, you name it. Hell, *I* was bored halfway through reading that article!
But to say that poly folk in general are bored with their relationships? The author wants it to be true, no doubt–but no matter which way you slice it, it’s not. Of course, there is a word for those who say “All members of class A are B”–that word is ‘prejudice,’ and prejudice always smells bad.
Taking a bit of a side jaunt for a moment: I’m not quite sure why it is that the self-appointed guardians of social convention almost always see some need to tear down anyone not like themselves in order to build themselves up. It’s possible to write an essay on the virtues of monogamy without trying to say “all people who are not monogamous are yadda, yadda, yadda;” and in fact, for some people, monogamy is a happy, reasonable, healthy, positive choice. But there seems to be something deeply threatening about polyamory for those people who defend monogamy–it’s not enough for them to say “Monogamy is right for me;” they must also carpet-bomb others with irrational prejudice and judgment.
Monogamy, for those who practice it, has some pretty compelling advantages over polyamory. It’s a whole lot simpler, for one. For another, monogamy is an institution carefully designed and constructed to protect people from their own fears and insecurities; it creates a comfortable, safe space where they need not fear having those insecurities and fears triggered, at least for the 30% of monogamous couples whose members never cheat. And, while we’re on the subject of safety, monogamy is safer than polyamory, both physically and emotionally; physically, because monogamous couples who do not cheat will be less likely to be exposed to sexually transmitted disease; and emotionally, because the more people you open your heart to, the more likely you are to have your heart broken.
Now, those advantages are not compelling enough for me to be monogamous; nor are they compelling enough for many polyamorous folk to be monogamous. Polyamory has its advantages, too; and the safety offered by monogamy comes at a price, one that some people are willing to pay, and others are not.
Monogamy is a perfectly reasonable choice–but it is not the ONLY reasonable choice, something that those who attempt to paint everyone else with deprecating (and factually incorrect) slander don’t want anyone to believe. I wonder sometimes at their motivations for tarring everyone who makes a different choice; I suspect that, at least for some monogamists, it comes from envy, and for other monogamists, it comes from a need to keep telling themselves that polyamory is wrong lest they walk down that path themselves. (You see the same thing, from time to time, amongst the anti-gay crowd–the outspoken, rabidly homophobic gay-basher who loudly and stridently denounces homosexuality because, deep within, he’s conflicted about his own sexual identity.)
Getting back to the essay, though, the author keeps piling on the prejudice, compounding her sloppy reasoning with this tidbit: “Promiscuous people are not happy. They are always looking for fulfillment around the corner, for excitement in the next encounter, for the bigger, the better, the more outrageous. They are never satisfied with what they have, but continue to strive toward something that is always out of reach. These people attempt to replace quantity with quality, growing tired with each new adventure and moving on, unsatisfied, to the next. Soon even the briefest of relationships aren’t enough, then it must be a stranger. After strangers become boring, they decide two strangers, now that would be really exciting. But when that doesn’t work, they have to reach lower and lower, degrade themselves even more, to find that next sexual thrill. When they aren’t seeking newer and more outrageous adventures, they’re busy running away from something – emotional problems, troubled pasts, flawed ideas about the validity of love… a happy and value-driven life. The inability to find and commit to someone wonderful is a serious character flaw, not a lifestyle that should be held up as a model of human behaviour.”
Whew! You got that, people? Everyone who is polyamorous is promiscuous; everyone who is promiscuous is unhappy; everyone who is promiscuous and unhappy eventually ends up in three-ways with total strangers. There, just so you know.
Now, at this point, it would be easy, and very tempting, to say “Monogamous people are not happy” and follow it up with outrageous nonsense about how the incredible dreariness of life with one partner drives them to cheat, to seek out a thrill by tasting the forbidden fruit, until finally their desperation for something–anything–other than the same old same old tears apart their relationship, leaving their children in broken homes and their spouses emotionally devastated, and to back it up with the statistics about the rate of divorce (50%), the rate of cheating (70% of all marriages in the US will have at least one partner cheat at least once), and so on, and so on.
But you know what? It’s all bullshit. Not all monogamous people are unhappy, and not all polyamorous people are unhappy. Not all monogamous people cheat, and not all polyamorous people have three-ways with strangers. (The snarky side of me wants to say “More monogamous people will cheat than polyamorous people will have those three-ways,” but I’ll let that one go.)
And then we get to it, the quote:
“People who claim to enjoy being ‘poly’ must steel themselves against jealousy, an emotion that should, by rights, be a warning sign that they are doing something wrong. The fact that they feel it, or have to try desperately not to feel it when they have to share someone they care about with someone else, is probably the clearest indication there is that this lifestyle is not at all natural for human beings. The proof of this lies in the fact that if it came down to it, if they absolutely had to choose one person from their threesome or group to be with – just one – every single one of them would be able to make that choice. Everyone has a preference, even among people they care about. Everyone knows the one person they want to be with more than anyone else.”
What is there to say about this quote?
Well, let’s start with: it’s factually wrong, and it can be proven to be wrong. Not every poly person can choose between his or her partners; in fact, it’s offensive and insulting to suggest that it’s true, and it’s akin to saying “Every mother who has two children loves one of them best. Every mother who has two children knows, deep down inside, that she had to, she would be able to make that choice.”
Some mothers can, I’m sure; and some poly people–particularly those in primary/secondary relationships–can too. But a poly person who loses a partner can certainly be just as devastated and just as heartbroken as a monogamous person who loses a partner; contrary to the author’s limited and mistaken understanding, it is indeed possible to be emotionally intimate with more than one person at a time, and guess what? A person who has two partners just might be equally devastated at losing *either* of them! You see, what the author completely misses is the whole foundation of this entire “romantic relationship” business: PEOPLE ARE NOT INTERCHANGEABLE COMMODITIES.
And, of course, there’s the not inconsiderable fact that not all poly people feel jealousy.
But let’s overlook the factual misstatements. Let’s assume, just hypothetically, that all the author’s little tacit assumptions and all the little unspoken assertions are 100% true. Even then, this passage STILL doesn’t hold water, because it rests on flawed logic and fallacy.
Let’s consider. “People who claim to enjoy being ‘poly’ must steel themselves against jealousy, an emotion that should, by rights, be a warning sign that they are doing something wrong.” That ‘something wrong’ is ‘non-monogamy.’ For some people, no doubt, this is the case. Yet people feel jealous even in monogamous relationships–not all poly people feel jealousy, and not all monogamous people are free from jealousy. So it’s possible–just possible–that jealousy is not *necessarily* rooted in issues of sexual fidelity at all! Assuming for the sake of argument that a poly person feels jealous–does that show that all non-monogamy is the problem? Or does it show that something in that person’s specific situation is the problem? Or does it show that–watch out, this is going to get rough–something *within that person* is the problem?
There, I said it.
Not all jealousy is rational; not all jealousy is warranted; not all jealousy is justified. Sometimes, it is; sometimes, jealousy is a clear and valid signal that something is wrong. But every so often, jealousy is actually a symptom of something else–some problem within a person’s self-esteem, or with a person’s self-image or security–and maybe, just maybe, that person might benefit by examining his fears, and challenging his self-image.
Funny thing about that kind of jealousy–it doesn’t even have to be prompted by anything related to sexual fidelity at all. People can be jealous of their partners’ family, hobbies, jobs, even pets. Monogamy provides cushions against fear and insecurity, but they aren’t perfect, and if a person is insecure, that insecurity will find a way to manifest, believe me.
As for this lifestyle “being not at all natural for humans”–all I can say at this point is the author is smoking crack. If we look throughout human history, we see that the only lifestyle which appears not to be natural for human beings is monogamy. Throughout all of history, in every culture and at every point in time, the predominant and most common of all sexual arrangements has been one man with many women; sexual relationships have historically been about power, possession, inheritance, property, and politics, not about love or romance. The notion of the nuclear family is very new, and indeed is virtually nonexistent before the nineteenth century.
If we look at the record, it’s polygon, not monogamy, that’s the natural order of human beings. Frankly, I think polyamory’s application of a bit of gender equality to the equation is a benefit.
But wait, there’s more! Having mischaracterized polyamory as being the same thing as promiscuity, having issued sweeping and ludicrous generalizations about promiscuity that would have all polyamorous people fucking strangers in the alleyways, and having buttressed this argument with a dose of good old-fashioned logical fallacy, the author then goes on to crawl behind the eyes of every single polyamorous person in the entire world, and (surprise!) finds that all of them, every single one, from every walk of life, feels exactly the same thing:
“There’s a loneliness that pervades those who simply flit from one person to the next, a sense that they are missing out on something profound and real.”
The only thing I can possibly imagine that would lead to this conclusion is the real tendency of people to re-create the world in their own image. Who knows? Perhaps the author was promiscuous at one point, felt something was missing, and found what she was searching for in monogamy. If so, hey! That’s cool; she discovered a path that’s right for her, and the net sum total of human happiness went up.
But to assume that the same is true of everyone–to assume that every polyamorous person is lonely and “flits from one person to the next” (because poly people are promiscuous, even the polyfidelitous ones, remember?) is just asinine. It’s about like saying “all Asians are good at math” or “all women want to be raped”–it makes assumptions about an entire class of people when reality shows us that the truth about human beings is our startling variation. There is more to the human experience, more breadth and depth in the human condition, than is dreamed of in her philosophy, much as she might try to put us all in the same box.
It’s kind of annoying, really; you can’t even say “All people have two legs,’ so to say that all people have some emotional experience or all people live in the same emotional reality is inane beyond words.
But even a stopped watch is right twice a day. As uninformed and preposterous as this fatuous essay is, there is some truth in it. She says, “If you understand, as I mentioned before, that sex for humans is as much about the mind as it is the body, then it makes perfect sense that the most fulfilling sex occurs within a mutually, loving, trusting relationship”–and in that regard, at least in my experience, she’s spot-on. The only part she gets wrong is assuming that that intimacy is denied anyone with two partners.
It doesn’t last, though. The very next statement–“Being with one person you love allows you a level of freedom and creativity that you can’t possible enjoy with strangers”–commits one of my favorite of all logical fallacies, the Fallacy of False Dichotomy.
At this point, it’s probably fair to pause for a minute and explain what that means. “Fallacy” is based on the Latin for “deceitful,” and in modern English means “an erroneous idea.” “Dichotomy” is from the Greek word for “division,” and means “of or pertaining to two mutually exclusive groups.” The Fallacy of False Dichotomy is a logical error in which the argument wrongly assumes that only two possibilities are present, and if a thing does not fit one of those possibilities, it therefore must fit on the other. “You are either a Christian or an atheist” is one example of the Fallacy of False Dichotomy; there are people who are neither.
Our author, who hasn’t been one to let a few factual or logical errors stop her before, continues the trend here, assuming that the only two possibilities are that you’re monogamous or you’re fucking strangers. There are other possibilities; naming them will be left as an exercise to the reader.
Of course, a little political correctness doesn’t stop her, either; in the very next sentences, she says, “The intimate bond you form with the person whose character you love as much as their body allows you to explore the dominant and submissive aspects of your natures, without worrying about political correctness or misunderstandings”–which seems, somewhat bizarrely, to be advocating BDSM within the context of monogamy.
Moving RIGHT along, as I don’t really want to touch THAT one with a ten-foot dildo strapped to a reciprocating saw, we are solemnly informed “With most casual relationships, sex is a special occasion. It is the ultimate goal of the relationship, yet the one thing that always eludes the players, who chase after it and connive ways to get it and who ultimately only get to enjoy it with relative infrequency. Monogamy provides you with an opportunity to enjoy sex every day of your life, in every way, infusing even your non-sexual moments with a tinge of excitement and expectation. Spontaneity is much easier when you’re married to your lover.”
An astute reader would likely argue that what we’re actually talking about here is proximity–spontaneity is much easier if you’re LIVING WITH your lover, regardless of whether there’s a state certificate hanging on the kitchen wall. And that’s true, which is why many poly folk like the notion of living with their lovers; you think spontaneity is easy when you’re living with one partner, try living with two!
The essay kind of muddles off at that point, talking about how enriching it is to stroke your lover’s penis while watching TV (presumably this is better if you’re watching Lexx than Monday Night Football, not that I’d know as I never watch football but have watched Lexx while snuggled between two absolutely delightful people). I know some families with young children who might disagree about the spontaneity, but we’ll leave that for another day.
And now that I think about it, perhaps penis-stroking during “Lexx” is a bit too creepy after all.