Critical polyamorist blog
Several evenings ago I attended a class and conversation on open relationships at a feminist sex shop in an increasingly trendy area of my mid-Continent city. The class was for the open relationship curious, or beginners. Although I’ve been at this for about 19 months, I’m still a beginner. My fabulous fellow WOC (woman of color) sex educator friend, Divina, led the course. She also does community activism on a range of other social issues that entangle and go beyond topics of sexuality. In this largely white, middle-class poly community, where I shy away from poly group events because I feel like a cultural outsider, I willingly submit to Divina’s skilled, effusive, and politically sophisticated leadership. Like me, she thinks about the role of compulsory monogamy in propping up a heteronormative, patriarchal, and colonial society. I can jump right in with her—into the politically deepest part of a conversation on this stuff and she’s right there with me. Plus she’s got years more on-the-ground experience in open relationships than I do. This particular class was aimed at a more general audience, however, tackling issues that many Poly 101 classes do—namely handling jealousy and the kind of never-ending communication that is a hallmark of healthy polyamory.
While the heightened racial and cultural diversity at this meeting was encouraging (yay feminist sex shop!), another cultural bias nonetheless loomed large at this event, which I will address in this blog. That is the couple-centric culture that pervades our city’s poly scene, and our broader society. Coupledom is often the foundational assumption that anchors many poly discussions. Topics for conversation at this class included WHY (open the “primary” relationship)? And then ground rules (for the couple) to consider: WHO (can and cannot be a candidate for an additional relationship—mutual friends? Exes)? WHAT (kinds of sex with others does the couple agree is okay)? You get the drift. As a “single poly” person I sat there feeling feisty and thinking “What, are we single polys just out here populating the world to sexually and emotionally serve individuals in couples?!” We get the “honor” of being on lists of appropriate partners, eligible “secondaries.” Or not? Our bodies and hearts and desires get to be the objects of couples’ rules about what’s allowed. Or not? It’s easy to feel ancillary in this type of poly scene, a sort of “snap on” component to a more permanent—a more legitimate—entity.
No doubt many poly folks in primary relationships struggle against hierarchy between that primary relationship and outside relationships. After all, the structure of the couple allows only so much. The language of primary and secondary only allows so much! Even in a Poly worldview that seeks to undo so many of the repressions and exclusions of monogamy, the normativity of the couple itself goes unquestioned by far too many polys. Yet its primacy in our society is engendered of the same institutions and unquestioned values that produce the monogamy we resist. Like monogamy, the couple entity as central to the nuclear family is bound up with the sex negativity that poly people battle as we argue for and live lives in which sex and love are not viewed in such finite terms (although time certainly is) and thus not “saved” for only one other person. Like monogamy, the couple (especially when legally married), is legitimated and rewarded at every turn—U.S. health insurance eligibility, clearer child custody arrangements, tax filing benefits, and general public recognition and validation. In our society this type of arrangement is assumed as the logical end point, what we are all looking for or should be looking for. One of my favorite bloggers, SoloPoly, has an excellent post on this “relationship escalator” (the expected progression—first meeting, courtship, sex, presenting as a couple in public, intimate exclusivity, establishing a routine together, commitment defined by these steps, culminating in legal marriage that is supposed to last until one person dies). She also has a second related post on “couple privilege” and a guest post on couple-centric polyamory, which links to the Secondary’s Bill of Rights. I’m posting that one on my refrigerator!
The fight for recognition of same-sex marriage also testifies to the pervasive couple-centricity of our culture. The dyad, for so long opposite sex and now increasingly also same sex, is portrayed as the fundamental unit of love and family. It is a key structure used to try and gain what should be fundamental human and civil rights for all of our citizens. I am reminded of biology textbooks that describe the gene as “the fundamental unit of life,” an instance of gene fetishism in which molecules come to stand simplistically for much more complex social-biological relations, for nature and nurture that actually shape one another in all kinds of interesting and unpredictable ways. In addition to genetic essentialism, we have in our culture couple essentialism. We fetishize the couple making it stand at the heart of love and family, which are actually the product of much more complex social-biological relations. The (monogamous) couple and narrower notions of family have a hard time containing and often sustaining the great complexity of relations that we humans feel and forge as we attempt to connect with one another throughout life. As with genes, I am not saying the couple produces only myths and master narratives. Like molecular sequences, there is sometimes beauty and profoundness in what the couple produces. But just as genes do not alone embody the enormity of “life” (despite the assertions of too many scientists and pop culture more generally) neither should the “couple” and its offshoot “nuclear family” embody in its most essential form the enormity of human love, physical desire, and family. A final note on same sex marriage: gays don’t always do marriage like straights expect them to—to give but one example of many, their greater acceptance of ethical non-monogamy. I see this as another upside of marriage equality in addition to it being the right thing to do for same sex couples. From this non-monogamist’s point of view it may help us revise marriage into a less repressive institution.
Of course it was not always so that the (monogamous) couple ideal reigned. In Public Vows: A History of Marriage and Nation, Nancy Cott argues with respect to the U.S that the Christian model of lifelong monogamous marriage was not a dominant worldview until the late nineteenth century, that it took work to make monogamous marriage seem like a foregone conclusion, and that people had to choose to make marriage the foundation for the new nation.” In The Importance of Being Monogamous, historian Sarah Carter also shows how “marriage was part of the national agenda in Canada—the marriage ‘fortress’ was established to guard the [Canadian] way of life.” At the same time that monogamous marriage was solidified as ideal and central to both U.S. and Canadian nation building, indigenous peoples in these two countries were being viciously restrained both conceptually and physically inside colonial borders and institutions that included reservations/reserves, residential schools, and churches and missions all designed to “save the man and kill the Indian.” Part of saving the Indians from their savagery meant pursuing the righteous monogamous, couple-centric, nuclear-family institution. Land tenure rights were attached to marriage in ways that tied women’s economic well-being to that institution.
Indeed, the nuclear family is the most commonly idealized alternative to the tribal/extended family context in which I was raised. As for many indigenous peoples, prior to colonization the fundamental indigenous social unit of my people was the extended kin group, including plural marriage. We have a particular word for this among my people but to use it would give away my tribal identification. With hindsight I can see that my road to ethical non-monogamy began early in my observations in tribal communities of mostly failed monogamy, extreme serial monogamy, and disruptions to nuclear family. Throughout my growing up I was subjected by both whites and Natives ourselves to narratives of shortcoming and failure—descriptions of Native American “broken families,” “teenage pregnancies,” “unmarried mothers,” and other “failed” attempts to paint a white, nationalist, middle class veneer over our lives. I used to think it was the failures to live up to that ideal that turned me off, and that’s why I ran for coastal cities and higher education—why I asserted from a very early age that I would never get married. Now I see that I was suffocating under the weight of the concept and practice of a normative middle-class nuclear family, including heteronormative coupledom period.
I was pretty happy as a kid in those moments when I sat at my grandmother’s dining room table with four generations and towards the end of my great-grandmother’s life FIVE generations. We would gather in her small dining room with it’s burnt orange linoleum and ruffled curtains, at the table beside the antique china cabinet, people overflowing into the equally small living room—all the generations eating, laughing, playing cards, drinking coffee, talking tribal politics, and eating again. The children would run in and out. I would sit quietly next to my grandmothers hoping no one would notice me. I could then avoid playing children’s games and listen instead to the adults' funny stories and wild tribal politics. Couples and marriages and nuclear families got little play there. The collectives—both our extended family and the tribe—cast a much wider, more meaningful, and complexly woven net. The matriarch of our family, my great-grandmother, was always laughing. She would cheat at cards and tell funny, poignant stories about my great-grandfather who died two decades before. Aunts and uncles would contribute their childhood memories to build on those stories. My mother would often bring the conversation back to tribal or national politics. A great-grandchild might have been recognized for some new creative, academic, or athletic accomplishment. The newest baby would be doted on as a newly arrived human who chose this family. The Mom who might be 18 or 20 and unmarried would have help, and she would be told to go back to school, or find a career track to better her life for her baby.
Too many in my family faced life choices more restricted than mine are now. Others were simply unwilling to sacrifice a life lived daily among extended family and tribe, as I have done. From where I stand it looks like my most of my extended family members have more security in that small town family and tribal community, or in the coherent, densely-populated “urban Indian” community in which I spent part of my childhood, than they do in Euro-centric traditions of nuclear family and marriage. On the other hand, my security and primary partnership is the educational and professional escalator that I ride and climb to ever more opportunities in high-up cities. Paradoxically, in seeking security outside of one colonial imposition—marriage and nuclear family (although I also tried that for a good while and wasn’t so skilled at it)—I chose a highly individualistic path that enmeshes me in different sets of colonial institutions: all of those corporate, nonprofit, government, and academic institutions in which I have worked. I also have a global indigenous and professional network that brings tremendous meaning to my life. But individuals among them are rarely here at night when I need someone to share words, laughter, food and touch with. I need to build some sort of extended kin group here in this city where I live. I doubt that coupledom (mine or others) combined with “outside” relationships will ever suffice in this context. Building something more collective is my desire and my challenge. Despite my focus on couple-centricity in Poly World, some polys refer to their intimate networks—their extended made families as “tribes.” But even those individuals are an ill fit for me for cultural reasons I’ve written about in earlier posts, ISO Feminist (NDN) Cowboys and Poly, Not Pagan, and Proud. I learn especially open communication lessons from Poly World, but I’ve made few real friends there. I look more to indigenous peoples for partial models, and I continue to seek non-indigenous people in this city who don’t fit the existing poly cultural mode, but who are committed to open relationships. Alas, it is exhausting being a minority within a minority. But I can never resist a challenge.
One final insight: Indigenous colleagues that I admire speak and write of “decolonizing love,” for example the Nitâcimowin blog of University of Victoria graduate student Kirsten Lindquist (Cree-Métis). I obviously love her focus of decolonial analysis on relationships. It is a generative framework for pushing us to articulate a better world. But my slightly cynical aging self doesn’t quite believe that we can decolonize, meaning to withdraw from or dismantle colonialism. We live inside a colossal colonial structure that took most of the world’s resources to build. Does not every maneuver against colonialism occur in intimate relationship to its structures? There is no outside. Deep inside the shadows and shifting (cracking?) walls of that edifice I don’t anymore see my family’s and tribe’s failures at lasting monogamy and nuclear family as failure. I see us experimenting, working incrementally with tools and technologies that we did not craft combined with indigenous cultural templates in any open space we can find to build lives that make any sense to us at all.
The Critical Polyamorist
 Nancy Cott, Public Vows: A History of Marriage and Nation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000) in Sarah Carter, The Importance of Being Monogamous: Marriage and Nation Building in Western Canada to 1915 (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press 2008): 3-4.
WARNING: A Critical Poly sex & dating post. It can't all be profound social theory!
The Critical Polyamorist has a predicament. I find monogamous men more attractive than poly men. Why? It is nothing inherent about polyamorous versus monogamous men, or people. Polyamorous men are not objectively less attractive than monogamous men. “Attractiveness” cannot be objectively or universally defined.
What I mean is that poly men and people generally are drawn disproportionately from a certain race/class of people who cultivate ways of being—and, in turn—bodies that I find less sexy based on the cultural standards for sexiness inculcated in me within the rich cultural world of my own non-privileged background. Standards of “attractiveness” are situated, and my standard does not synchronize with the situated community of polyamorists in my middle-American urbane milieu. From my standpoint as a small town girl turned cosmopolitan, woman-of-color feminist intellectual, poly men are less sexy and compelling to me precisely because of reasons I’ve raised in earlier blogs. They come disproportionately from middle-class, highly educated, WASP backgrounds. In their privileged lives and histories they have disproportionately molded themselves into pale, skinny, soy latte sipping, yoga bendy techies, New Agers, or sometimes renaissance faire-going kinksters. To each his or her own, but for me, a skinny white boy dressed in an inauthentic kilt or wearing leather and flogging his submissive woman or getting flogged by a mistress is not my cup of tea. (Stay tuned for a future post on the race and class politics of BDSM in which I will give the community a fairer and more in-depth treatment.)
I come from a place that I have both hated and loved: A USA/AIM/tribal flag flying, vet worshiping, pickup truck driving, Waylon Jennings-singing-out-the-car-window-surrounded-by-cornfields-small-town. Maybe twenty streets crisscrossed in an all too finite grid beneath the brightest infinite sky. All I saw growing up were the roads and river leading out of town. I never understood how anyone could not take to them. And I did. Now I'm here and I find myself only really relating to men who can relate to that kind of place, to the land and peoples I come from. Where are they who have made a similar journey? I’ve struggled to get here and now I’m stuck with some skinny-ass, urbane poly guys?
I want men with meat on their bones—who fill out their jeans and pearl snap shirts. There is nothing sexier than a bit of belly. I want sex positive, feminist men in cowboy boots. I don’t even mind if they fly flags as long as they understand why I refuse to, men who understand when I say, "this country is not this land." Yet who will dance with me and feel it deep in their bodies too some classic Texas country in a dance hall, or wailing out of speakers in a garage furnished with a sagging couch, tools and half rebuilt cars. I want men who call me Princess because they are amused that I get like that sometimes, and who can handle it just fine—who are not threatened by my knowledge of safe sex, and my frequent flier mileage account. Who stand up to me as I stand up to them: Eye to challenging eye, body to strong body, who will neither kiss my ass, nor dominate me.
Good luck, Woman.
When I do get a date with one of those hunky guys who share my love of Waylon and Willie they often don’t know the difference between ethical non-monogamy and just sleeping around until they find the new right ONE who will move in, warm their bed, and their food. Several times I’ve heard “So are you REALLY serious about this non-monogamy stuff?” Those ones tend to know little about sexual techniques past quick missionary style sex. Although to be fair, some want to do better. But I’m pretty vanilla and I still feel like I could do a two-week sex education course for these guys. And, you know, I would! But on top of that, a disproportionate number of them cannot keep an erection with a condom on. You can tell they haven’t used them much. Not a good sign on any front! And indications are they take it as sluttiness (I’m not a fan of that word even in a sex-positive meaning—it’s inherently negative) and not a courageous intellect that I have both medical and social knowledge about sex techniques, safe sex practices, and disease rates in different populations. Polyamorous relationships—due to the emphasis on openness and communication about sexual practices can actually result in more physically healthy relationships when one accounts for the unsafe sex practices and lack of communication about sex among unfaithful so-called monogamous people.
It’s enough to drive Critical Poly back to monogamy. But wait, what I’m looking for isn’t out there in mono world either, is it? And that is the fundamental predicament. In addition to there being too few ethically non-monogamous people in this world yet, there are too few sex positive people period—monogamous or non-monogamous. Not only are we dominated by compulsory monogamy in our society, but we are hounded by its pal, sexual shame. Both are tied up with our capitalist systems of private ownership and control not only of land but women’s bodies—all bodies. We who try hard to live sex positive are not drawn proportionately from the full, colorful, contradictory array of humanity. Not everyone has the resources to walk this talk. In boots.
But I keep hoping. Where are you feminist, meat-on-your bones, humble, swaggering men who will dance in a honky tonk with me—and not as hipster voyeurs but as homeboys there? And who would be equally comfortable flying to Stockholm, Tokyo, or Fargo? Or happy to stay home taking care of their own business, but just fine that I hit the road regularly?
I was out recently in some trendy patio bar in my glass-towered downtown with some super-cologned-up guy. He leaned forward with his white teeth and his perfectly pressed $200 Italian button-up shirt. He whispered across the wine glasses and arugula, “What is your fantasy?” I responded with a quizzical look: “I don’t have fantasies. Anything I want that is possible to bring into being, I work on that. If it is impossible in this world, I don’t bother fantasizing about it.” I don’t think that is the response he was looking for. He had identified himself to me earlier as a dom and Critical Poly isn’t into having her butt paddled or her neck collared. Our date ended early. But now that I’ve written this, I realize that I do have a fantasy. And no matter how far-fetched it may seem, I’ll keep searching for those most contradictory of humans: feminist (preferably NDN--but I’m negotiable on this one) country boys who have the skills to take on the city, and me.
The Critical Polyamorist
p.s.: Since I first drafted this blog post several months ago, I found a big old handsome, car repairing, book reading, idea slinging, axe wielding, ethical non-monogamist firefighter to fill a friend/lover position. Oh my god, he is the sexiest thing.
 American Indian Movement
 Voxxi. “STIs: Why Polyamorous Relationships Can Be Physically Healthier Than Monogamous Ones," Polyamory in the News, January 19, 2014.
 “Dom” is a male dominant within the world of BDSM. Whereas “domme” is a female dominant. According to anthropologist Margot Weiss BDSM “is an amalgamation of three acronyms: B&D (bondage and discipline), D/s (domination/submission), and SM (sadomasochism).” Practitioners prefer SM (for sadomasochism) to S&M (sadism & masochism). “Many practitioners feel that SM brings the S and M together” thus emphasizing the “mutual necessity for both as well as the consent involved.” Margot Weiss, Techniques of Pleasure (Duke University Press, 2011): vii, xi.
 NDN is shorthand for “Indian,” a term Native Americans use to describe ourselves. In my experience, the use of the term by Native Americans both acknowledges the colonial genealogy of “Indian,” but insists on continued use of the term in a way that connotes an insider’s familiarity with its usage.
Photo credit: Short Skirts and Cowgirl Boots by David Hensley
The Critical Polyamorist, AKA Kim TallBear, blogs & tweets about indigenous, racial, and cultural politics related to ethical non-monogamy. She is a prairie loving, big sky woman. She lives south of the Arctic Circle, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. You can follow her on Twitter @CriticalPoly