On another forum I read, someone made a complaint that folks in the poly community tend to see monogamy in terms of ownership and control; that is, for many poly folks, monogamy is about owning your other partner, while polyamory is more egalitarian, treating other people as fully actualized human beings.
And, sadly, I’ve encountered poly folks who do believe that. The misguided notion that polyamory is “more evolved” than monogamy comes, in many cases, from the assumption that monogamy is inherently rooted in ownership and polyamory is inherently egalitarian.
As with many preconceptions, it’s possible, if one squints hard enough, to see where this idea comes from. There’s nothing inherently wrong or controlling about monogamy per se; monogamy, by itself, is not necessarily disempowering or ownership-based.
But there is some truth to the notion that monogamy as a cultural norm comes with a set of social expectations that are deeply planted in the soil of ownership of others.
People in our society are expected to believe not just in monogamy, but in a whole set of social expectations that comes along with it. People say things like “you let your wife spend time with other men?” or “you let your husband talk to his ex?” as though it is natural and expected that we should be able to control who our partners interact with. People say things like “I would never allow my partner to masturbate” or “I would never permit my partner to fantasize about other people” as if it is normal to control our partners’ bodies and minds.
Not every monogamous person does this, of course. But these ideas are very commonly attached to our social expectations of monogamy; monogamy as a social institution began in cultures in which ideas of ownership were deeply embedded, and those ideas have proved very tenacious.
There’s a problem, though, in that polyamory is not necessarily any better.
People who live outside the cultural mainstream love to believe that they have escaped the petty social norms that enslave all the other sheeple still trapped in the spider web of normative behavior. In reality, though, cultural ideas have an insidious way of seeping into us even when we’re aware of them. Simply knowing that we were raised in a climate of ownership assumptions about sex and love doesn’t make us immune to internalizing them. In fact, many, many people in the poly community cling just as strongly to paradigms of ownership and control as they believe all those poor “unevolved” monogamous folks do–they simply manifest differently, that’s all.
I’ve been putting some thought to the sneaky ways that social expectations can creep into relationships even when they’re outside the social mainstream. Here are some examples I’ve come up with.
|Control paradigm||Egalitarian paradigm|
|I let you have other partners. This is a privilege I grant you. I can tell you who, under what circumstances, when, and how you may have other partners.||You are a human being with the right to make your own choices about having other partners. I will tell you what I am comfortable or uncomfortable with, and trust you to make choices that honor and cherish our relationship.|
|I let you have sex with other people. This is a privilege I grant you. I can tell you how you may or may not have sex or otherwise control the timing or manner of your sexual activity.||You have an intrinsic right to make choices about your sexuality. I will communicate you what I am comfortable or uncomfortable with, because I trust you to make choices that honor and cherish our relationship.|
|My sexual health is your responsibility. I will set limits on your behavior to ensure that you only engage in sexual activity that meets my sexual risk limits.||My sexual health is my responsibility. I will communicate to you my sexual health boundaries, risk limits, and concerns. Because your risk limits and concerns may not match mine, you are free to make whatever choices with your own sexual health that you like. If your behavior exceeds my threshold of risk, I have the right to change the sexual relationship between you and I, including adding barriers or even ending it entirely. If having a sexual relationship with me is something you value, you can make choices to remain within my levels of acceptable risk.|
|I may fetishize your other sexual partners for my gratification. I have the right to tell you how to or not to have sex and/or demand the intimate details of your sexual activites for my sexual gratification.||Your sexual activity with other people and your other partners are not merely for my sexual gratification. I will accept your right to choose sexual activities that you and your other partner find fulfilling, and that you and your other partner have a right to privacy about your own intimacy.|
|If I am sexually attracted to your other partners, it is your responsibility to share them with me. You have an obligation to provide me with access to your partners if I want it.||Your other partners are human beings. As they are not your property, it is not your obligation to make them sexually available to me.|
|My sexual partners are mine. You are not permitted to express an interest in them; if I want to keep them to myself, this overrides the wishes or desires of both you and my other partners.||My other sexual partners are human beings. As they are not my property, I do not have the right to "keep" them; they are people, not things, capable of making their own decisions about sexual intimacy and partner choices.|
|My fears, insecurities, and jealousy are your responsibility. I have the right to control your behavior and/or the behavior of your other partners in order to manage my fears and insecurities.||My fears, insecurities, and jealousy are my responsibility. I have the right to communicate with you about them, and to ask for your help in dealing with them. Because you love and cherish me, you will work with me to help me when I am afraid or insecure. These feelings do not give me the right to dictate your choices, however.|
|I have the right to ensure that you may have other partners only to the extent that your other partners do not affect me or our relationship. I may limit or control your other relationships so as to make sure they do not affect me.||I understand that there are many uncertainties in life. Everything from a new job to being fired to illness to family of origin problems to being hit by a runaway bus may affect our relationship together. When your other partnerships affect me in a way that concerns me, I have the right and the responsibility to communicate with you about it, so that we can work together to address my concerns.|
|Your other relationships exist only on my say-so and only for so long as I permit. I have the right to order you to terminate any of your other relationships if I feel it is necessary or desirable.||Your other partners are people with needs and feelings; they have have the right to explore and develop their relationship with you, to be supported by you, and to expect that their relationship with you will continue for so long as it benefits you and them. I may reasonably expect that they will respect the relationship between you and I; they may reasonably expect that I will respect the relationship between you and them.|
|Understanding my needs is your responsibility. If you fail to meet my needs or expectations, even if I have not made them explicitly clear, you have wronged me, and I have the right to control your behavior so as to ensure they are met.||Understanding my needs is my responsibility. Communicating my needs with you is also my responsibility. You can not be expected to meet any needs of mine that you are not aware of. I may ask for your help in making sure I am taken care of, and trust that you value me and want to take care of my needs.|
|The relationship between me and your other partner is your responsibility. I may require that you arrange meetings between us, that you keep the other person separate from me, that you ensure I am comfortable with your other partner, or otherwise make it your responsibility to manage the relationship between us.||The relationship I have with your other partner is our responsibility. As I am an adult and your other partner is an adult, it is on each of us to negotiate what kind of relationship we want to have with each other.|
|I permit you to have other relationships only so long as they are subordinate to me.||The people with whom you develop relationships have needs and feelings, and have just as much right as I have to asking your help in meeting them. Should our needs run into conflict, we can come together to communicate and negotiate as adult human beings; I may not claim authority over another human being merely because I met you first.|
|I have the right to control your emotional engagement with other people. This includes the right to tell you that you may not experience certain emotions (for example, you may not fall in love with another partner) and/or the right to control the extent to which you feel emotions with others.||Your emotional experience is one of the most fundamental parts of who you are as a person. I recognize that it is impossible for us as human beings to place arbitrary controls on our emotions.|
|I have the right to control how far and to what extent you become entangled with other people. For example, I may forbid you to become financially entangled with other partners.||Decisions about how to conduct your life can only be made by you. Realistically, whatever promises you have made and whatever rules I have made, there is nothing short of a shotgun and a length of chain that compels you to stay with me. I have the right to expect that you will uphold agreements you have made with me, and I have the right to expect that your decisions will account for the responsibilities you have incurred with me. Beyond that, I can not realistically lay claim to your autonomy; even if I want to, it is not possible for me to compel your decisions.|
|I have the right to control your expressions of love, affection, or feelings for others. I may forbid you to give gifts to other partners, do errands with other partners, use certain pet names with other partners, or have certain experiences with other partners.||The way you express love is one of the most intimate of all choices you can make. Attempts to dictate how you may or may not do this are not only extremely intrusive, they may undermine the foundations of your other relationships. As long as you express the love you feel for me with me, it is not necessary for me to control your expressions with others.|
|My emotions are your responsibility. If I feel something that I don’t want to feel.this is your fault, and I may limit your behavior as a result.||My emotions are my responsibility. Even when they are surprising or unpleasant, they belong to me. I have the reponsibility to communicate with you about my emotions, and I may ask for your help in feeling loved and supported by you.|
|I have the right to define your other relationships.||As adult human beings, you and your other partners have the right to define your relationship for yourselves.|
|I have the authority to place your other relationships in a hierarchy of my choosing.||As adult human beings, you and your other partners have the right to determine the shape of your relationship. I have the responsibility to communicate my needs to you; as long as you are able and willing to work with me to meet those needs, the ordering of your other relationships is a decision between you and your other partners.|
|Agreements between you and I are binding on any other partners you may have.||All the people involved have a right to negotiate any agreements that may affect us.|
I’m sure there are more. What are your experiences?