July
21st 2014
Polyamory looks just like heterosexuality, only moreso

Posted under: American history, Gender, women's history

Via Twitter, I clicked on a link to an article about polyamory at The Atlantic by Olga Khazan, and was struck by just how un-rebellious it seemed.  Actually, it seemed pretty damned polygamous, as in Fundamentalist LDS-style polygamous, with a much older man sharing two much younger women.  Here’s the lede:

When I met Jonica Hunter, Sarah Taub, and Michael Rios on a typical weekday afternoon in their tidy duplex in Northern Virginia, a very small part of me worried they might try to convert me.

All three live there together, but they aren’t roommates—they’re lovers.

Or rather, Jonica and Michael are. And Sarah and Michael are. And so are Sarah and whomever she happens to bring home some weekends. And Michael and whomever he might be courting. They’re polyamorous.

Michael is 65, and he has a chinstrap beard that makes him look like he just walked off an Amish homestead. Jonica is 27, with close-cropped hair, a pointed chin, and a quiet air. Sarah is 46 and has an Earth Motherly demeanor that put me at relative ease.

My first thought?  Eeeew, not because of the polyamory, but because of the serious age differences between gramps and his girlfriends.  My second thought:  it’s not like FLDS communities in that the women are permitted to date other men and bring them home even.  But why is there still some old silverback in charge of the pack?

This question is never asked in the article.  It takes for granted that polyamory usually grows out of a heterosexual couple’s search for another woman, and mentions a couple dating men only once:  “Many couples who become interested in polyamory start by looking for a single, bisexual woman to add to the relationship. In fact, this quest has become so common (and its object has remained so elusive) that it’s known as ‘hunting the unicorn.’”  Where are the poly families featuring women in their sixties, and younger men in their twenties, thirties, and forties?  Why isn’t this just as common an arrangement?  Why doesn’t Olga Khazan bother asking this question?

The way that these hetero/married couples are described on their “hunting” expeditions,  it’s like they’re looking to adopt a pet, and frankly it sounded creepy, even predatory.  There’s no analysis of the dynamic here, which I’m guessing usually involves an older couple “hunting” for a younger woman.  (We can use the gerund “shopping,” if you prefer, for more of a late-capitalist vibe than the caveman vibe implicit in “hunting”):

One of the Baltimore couples, Josh and Cassie, represents a typical approach to polyamory: They met a decade ago through a mutual friend, and they dated monogamously for several years before Cassie, who is bisexual, raised the idea of adding another woman to the relationship. They’ve since had several committed triad relationships lasting from a few months to several years. The “other woman” becomes a full partner in the relationship, and ideally, she complements them both in some way. Cassie always hopes that it’ll be a fellow horror-movie lover, while Josh keeps his fingers crossed for an anime fanatic.

There is one poly group that consists of a hetero couple who dates/partners with men described in this article (“Bill and Erin”), but it appears that two women and one man is the typical arrangement.  The article also offers an interesting (and mostly accurate) rundown of other sexual experiments outside monogamous heterosexuality, like the Oneida community, which also featured “elderly true believers” who “regularly initiated. . . less-experienced teenagers into sex,” but again, the author offers no analysis of the power dynamics related to age in modern polyamorous practices or the Oneida experiment.  The article concludes:

Overall, Josh says sharing a life between three adults, rather than two, is not as kinky and complicated as some monogamous people might think. “The stuff in poly that’s difficult is not the sex,” he said. “It’s where the goddamn spoons get put away.”

In that sense, at least, poly and mono relationships are more alike than they are different.

Actually, it seems like they’re more alike than different in pretty much every way that really matters.

18 Comments »

18 Responses to “Polyamory looks just like heterosexuality, only moreso”

  1. Anon on 21 Jul 2014 at 11:49 am #

    “Cassie always hopes that it’ll be a fellow horror-movie lover, while Josh keeps his fingers crossed for really perky breasts.” There. Fixed it for you.

  2. Historiann on 21 Jul 2014 at 12:59 pm #

    Hee-hee! Just what I was thinking.

  3. Northern Barbarian on 21 Jul 2014 at 1:10 pm #

    Why do some things never change? This arrangement also reminds me of most Islamic polygynous families I’ve studied, where inevitably the second wife is much younger, often in her teens. I think the pattern has more to do with our ape natures than we feel comfortable looking at. On the other hand, if Khazan had looked beyond hetero couples who seem mostly interested in spicing things up a bit, she would have found a large amount of intense negotiating and philosophizing among queer polyamorous types, who mostly seem to be in their 20s. Makes me tired just thinking about it. . .

  4. Historiann on 21 Jul 2014 at 1:28 pm #

    inevitably the second wife is much younger, often in her teens. . .

    Great comparison, NB. It’s not just the men who want the third party to be a lot younger (a.k.a. the “perky breast” phenomenon that Anon mentions above.) It’s also the senior women in these families, who like the new parties to the partnership junior (and perhaps more push-aroundable, directable, and dominatable) to them.

  5. Rebecca Hiles on 21 Jul 2014 at 2:26 pm #

    There are a number of other configurations… For instance My partner and I are in a poly set up where I (am female) have multiple partners (mostly men, and the partner I live with has only one or two besides me. Poly groups are very diverse in that respect. For instance:

    Rebecca
    Husband (J,29), Husband (26), Boyfriend (43), Boyfriend (25)

    Husband (J,29)
    Girlfriend (30),Dating(37)

    Husband (K,26)
    Dating (25)

    I will say that I had a problem with this article because of the fact that they did not cover enough different types of poly groups, but I also that they essentially say that poly is free from jealousy, and it is most definitely not.

  6. Susan on 21 Jul 2014 at 2:40 pm #

    It’s interesting that in some cases in the article, the “girlfriend” is the couple’s, and in other cases, there is a man with separate relationships with different women. And it strikes me that those are different.

    What strikes me as amazing is that all these people who are so proud of how much they talk about their relationships and rules *do not* talk about power. But sex is a powerful thing, and sexual relationships are fraught with all sorts of power issues. But I guess when you’re “in love” you pretend it’s not there!

  7. Flavia on 21 Jul 2014 at 6:29 pm #

    I don’t know any polyamorous people or groups personally, though I’ve run into some on the internet and know of others through friends/acquaintances — some straight but more gay, and, perhaps for reasons of self-selection, I know/know of none who are in a heterosexual dude-centric grouping like the ones this article focuses on.

    But that isn’t to say that the het double-standard doesn’t apply: I know of two gay triads where one party definitely assumed all the privileges of traditional masculinity and expected to be able to have the permanent partner as well as the bit on the side.

    Officially, my position is that if everyone is truly consenting and able to actively negotiate the terms of the relationship he or she is in, then I’m happy for all concerned and it’s none of my business.

    Unofficially. . . well, I haven’t seen it work, and it’s so remote from my own nature and desires that it’s hard for me to believe it can. But maybe that’s just me! I can’t imagine having the energy or emotional resources to devote to intimate relationships with multiple people.

  8. Historiann on 21 Jul 2014 at 7:32 pm #

    I can’t imagine having the energy or emotional resources to devote to intimate relationships with multiple people.

    inorite?

    Of course, consenting adults and all that. But don’t tell me that a 27-year old and a 65-year old are really giving consent with the benefit of the same life experience, wisdom, and etc. I think feminists have been too quick to abandon the judgment of “false consciousness.”

  9. Rachel Cleves on 21 Jul 2014 at 9:56 pm #

    Check out the life of Violet Gordon-Woodhouse, for an alternative historical perspective. The aunt to Elizabeth David, VGW had four husbands with whom she lived simultaneously, while she maintained a successful career as a concert clavichordist and harpsichordist. Kind of admirable, except she was also a raging anti-semite of the Diana Mitford variety.

  10. truffula on 21 Jul 2014 at 10:44 pm #

    The article strikes me as internally contradictory ode to to patriarchy with some milquetoast voyeurism thrown in for the hipsters (or somebody).

    By easing the competition to scoop up as many wives as possible, monogamy allows men to instead focus on things like child-rearing, long-term planning, and saving money.

    There are many conflations like this in the article, between polyamory and polygamy, between polyamory and “affairs,” etc.

    H’ann: But don’t tell me that a 27-year old and a 65-year old are really giving consent with the benefit of the same life experience

    Absolutely, but that’s not about the polyamory. The same would apply to a mono relationship with this age differential.

    It’s completely unsurprising to me that poly relationships tend to look like mono relationships. They all exist in and are informed by a patriarchal world order. Poly relationships are, in this way, just like all the other relationships in which people claim to have overcome patriarchy’s various norms.

    I know just one poly family and they are as happy as anybody else I know seems to be, and have the same relationship ups and downs as anybody else seems to have. Completely un-extraordinary.

  11. Wogglebug on 21 Jul 2014 at 11:38 pm #

    “Many couples who become interested in polyamory start by looking for a single, bisexual woman to add to the relationship” precisely because such couples are not poly or not comfortable with it. They want to date as a couple because they’re afraid having any separate independent relationships would undermine their couplehood, and they have to find a woman because the man is Not Gay.

    I know some actual poly people, and their relationships are relatively seldom of the “couple dates Hot Bi Babe” configuration. It’s usually a couple or triad in a stable long-term relationship, with the chance for everybody to see other people on the side, or people not in long-term committed relationships, but dating a varying number of people in an above-board fashion, without trying to make all their dates hook up with each other.
    Also note that people can have important roles in one another’s lives without living together. There’s a lot of caring to the intensity of a medium-good friend, but with erotic/romantic feelings, without wanting to get married and spend all your time together. Some of what I see people get from it is the chance to regard a relationship as successful without it having to be The One.

    The reason larger constellations are vanishingly rare is just that the chances of falling in love with someone, who also falls in love with you, are small enough. Multiply by the chance that you’ll also both fall in love with C, and C falling for *both* of you, and then multiply by D, and the probability fades into nothingness.

  12. Linden on 22 Jul 2014 at 11:44 am #

    Susan’s point about power not being part of the conversation is a good one. I know a number of poly folks, and while only a few fit the “older man with younger women” dynamic, in any relationship there’s going to be struggles over power and this is not something they seem to address, even though they claim to be better at talking out issues than monogamous people.

    My observation has been that polyamorous relationships are just as fraught with power struggles, jealousy, conflict, breakups and infidelity as monogamous ones, because they involve people and that’s what you get with people.

    My observation has also been that monogamous couples who decide to “open up” their relationship are usually on a slow track to dissolution. They would do better to just break up right away instead of drawing out the pain and getting other people involved in their drama.

  13. ElizabethDrinker on 23 Jul 2014 at 10:19 pm #

    “But don’t tell me that a 27-year old and a 65-year old are really giving consent with the benefit of the same life experience, wisdom, and etc. I think feminists have been too quick to abandon the judgment of ‘false consciousness’”

    Twenty SEVEN? Yeah, that is a grown-ass woman by every possible definition and metric. I think some “feminists” may be too SLOW give up on knee-jerk infantilization and judgy-ness when encountering women who make different choices than theirs.

  14. Historiann on 24 Jul 2014 at 6:53 am #

    Yeah: that’s right. Feminism is all about the **choices**, not about critiquing power relations!

  15. Rebecca Hiles on 24 Jul 2014 at 8:10 am #

    “But don’t tell me that a 27-year old and a 65-year old are really giving consent with the benefit of the same life experience, wisdom, and etc.”

    I think you may be completely discounting the agency of either party to make an informed decision. My experience is that you do not get involved romantically/physically with someone who is more than twice your age without acknowledging that you have very different life experiences, and that you are in very different places. However, you use that experience to work and learn from each other.

    “Yeah: that’s right. Feminism is all about the **choices**, not about critiquing power relations!”

    You can critique the power relations without judging the choices someone makes for themselves. It is absolutely understandable to believe that there is typically a substantial difference in life experience and wisdom between a 27 and 65 year old. However, implying that the 27 year old could not possibly give consent to the relationship or know what she’s getting into takes away the woman’s agency to know what is best for her life and relationships.

  16. Historiann on 24 Jul 2014 at 8:29 am #

    I have no power either to grant or take away anyone’s “agency.” I’m just another a$$hole on the internets with an opinion. I never said that a 27-year old woman couldn’t consent–I merely pointed out that she doesn’t have the life experience of a 65-year old, and so they’re not on an equal footing in that respect.

    You can critique the power relations without judging the choices someone makes for themselves.

    That’s a fine line, isn’t it? When most people are on the receiving end of a “critique,” they experience it as judgment.

    A friend of mine is finishing a book right now on the subject of child marriage in the 19th and 20th C U.S., and what evolving standards on this issue say about both the ways in which Americans thought about children and thought about women (since most of the child marriage cases he has involve a very young girl with an older man.) He’s very eager to acknowledge the girls’ agency in their marriages, and I agree with him on that. But saying “they’re making a decision for themselves” or “they’re making a good decision for themselves” are two very different judgments. Yes, judgments. I’m totes comfortable with that.

  17. Tenured Radical on 04 Aug 2014 at 6:12 am #

    It sounds…..exhausting.

  18. Z on 19 Aug 2014 at 9:36 pm #

    The polyamorous groups I have actually met all had one person with far more power than the others. Typically that one had the most money and was also the one involved with all the players.

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