Feminist Non-Monogamy?

Non-monogamy is practised mostly by feminists/is a feminist act.”

“Non-monogamy is misogynistic, male-centric and abusive towards woman.”


If I had a pound for every time I’d heard one of these two – clearly contradictory – takes on non-monogamy, I would be a rather rich woman by now.

But it cannot be both. These two ‘facts’ cannot co-exist and both be true. So which is it?

…..In and of itself, it’s neither. It has strong potential to go either way.

Non-monogamy can certainly be misogynistic and male-centric, and all too often does indeed seem to fall into becoming so. Traditional (usually religious though not always) polygyny falls squarely into this category, in my book. (Sister Wives, anyone?) A form of non-monogamy in which The Man can have all the partners he wants, but the women must be faithful to him only screams of this.

(I’m not talking about actual, negotiated mono-poly relationships here, which I tend to be sceptical of but know can work, if done correctly. I’m talking about the enforcing of this kind of dynamic through any kind of system of unequal power.) I find this doubly frightening when it’s sanctioned by religion, law or some other ‘governing body.’ In these systems it’s about control, it’s about ownership, and that’s really Not Okay.

A really big part of this is, I think, tied up in the issues surrounding the ways that female sexuality is often viewed by our culture as being all about men. There are certain ways I see this manifesting over and over again in polyamorous or non-monogamous set-ups. These include, but are not limited to, the One Penis Policy[1], the ideal of the hot bi babe, and typically male-centric views of female/female attraction/sex/relationships (any other bi/lesbian/queer identified women who’ve ever been asked by a man “can I watch?” will understand what I mean here!)

The partner who told me I was ‘ruined’ because I’d had a penis that was not his inside me… the male partners who assumed any girlfriends I had would be down for threesomes with them…. the partner who lied to my girlfriend-at-the-time and told her he had romantic feelings for her “to get free sex” (yes, this actually happened, I find it hard to believe too)… all of these are manifestations of a form of non-monogamy which is highly misogynistic, sexist, and was specifically damaging to me as a woman. Once again, all things which bought into horrible societal systems of men owning women, of women owing their bodies to men, of women having no sexuality that exists independently of men. And these examples are just from my own experience – I’ve heard similar from countless other women.

Only in a system in which potentially unequal power dynamics are recognised and steps are taken to negate them is it possible to create a healthy and feminist (whether you want to call it that or not)[2] form of non-monogamy. This really doesn’t require huge, radical steps. It’s as simple as partners negotiating things as equals, truly listening to and communicating with each other, regardless of gender. It’s as simple as a man accepting that a woman’s sexuality is her own; that he does not own her, and she does not ‘owe’ him anything. (Surprisingly, though, there are huge areas of society in which these simple notions are seen as radical.)

So what does a feminist-friendly non-monogamy look like? I’m sure everyone will have slightly differing opinions on this, and I’d love to hear some of them.

For me? It’s largely simple things. It’s…

…when Nomad reassures me that he loves and values me, even if I’m not dressed up in a sexy outfit or wanting to have sex at that particular moment in time. It’s being wanted for more than just my body, being secure in the knowledge that my personality and mind and thoughts and interests are important.

…being given freedom to express my wants, needs and desires, and an equal voice in making any decisions or resolving any issues.

…not having my worth as a person determined by my sexual choices (either “too slutty” or “too prudish,” depending upon who you ask.)

…the freedom to date a woman, if I want to, without the assumption that this gives my male partners some kind of free pass sexual access to her (or, conversely, gives her male partners access to me!)

…being able to say ‘no’ to somebody, and not have them stop talking to me or fly off the handle about it.

There are many more examples, but these are just a few of them.

In conclusion, then[3], non-monogamy isn’t necessarily feminist-friendly, but it can be. And it’s so easy to practice a form of polyamory that isn’t sexist or misogynistic. And I sure as hell know which way I want my non-monogamy to go! (For that matter, if in some parallel universe I changed completely and decided to be monogamous, I’d want my monogamy to be feminist as well.)


[1] I’ll do a longer post on my issues with this eventually.

[2] I’m aware not everyone reading this, and certainly not everyone who practices a healthy, respectful form of non-monogamy identifies explicitely as a feminist – so I’m going to use the term ‘feminist-friendly’ in addition to ‘feminist.’

[3] Term used loosely – I fully expect to come back to some of these issues and write more on them at some point!

11 thoughts on “Feminist Non-Monogamy?

  1. Ludi says:

    I think that mono-normativity is misogynistic, and I think that non-monogamy has huge potential to be feminist, especially as many people come to poly, and choose it (few monogamous people choose monogamy, as it’s a default) because they’re frustrated with the oppressive nature of mono-normativity. (I wrote about my experiences of that here, if you’re interested – http://polytical.org/2010/11/why-ive-had-it-with-monogamy/ )

    However, the more time I spent in poly spaces, the more I’m questioning the inherently feminist nature of poly. I think the ways in which many people practice things could be more feminist, given how much many people talk about how great poly is and how awful monogamy is. I’m a beautiful twentysomething woman, and when I’m in poly space, I feel like I’m fair game for any man to come on to, strongly, and a lot. Poly space is sex-positive space, and what that means in practice is that it’s space in which I’m seen as being constantly sexually available – especially to the many, many forty-something men that hang out in these spaces, some of whom I’ve found to be actively predatory. Especially for young women new to poly, these people (generally experienced, seen as experts) are really quite dangerous.

    In the Climate Camp community, poly became quite widespread a few years ago, and the way in which loads of their women were suddenly seen as sexually available was really rubbish for the community: they wrote a zine about it – http://anarchalibrary.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/anarchism-and-polyamory-2010-zine.html

    And much of poly literature seems to be written by middle-aged men, many poly events and websites are run by men… at the moment, my being a twentysomething women writing a whole lot of stuff on poly and running poly events feels like a really good balancing factor against that. But I know that, at some point, this whole thing of… collaborating in making loads of young women sexually available to loads of older men, and this often not really being the greatest thing ever, is going to mean I stop doing poly activism. At some point, that’ll get too much.

    I think the problems here are really similar to those in kink communities: kink has so much potential to solve lots of the problems that mainstream narratives of sexuality bring up. The ways in which kinky folks talk about safety and consent are absolutely brilliant. But, that potential isn’t realised, because there’s so much focus on maintaining that image as feminist and fully consensual that people who mention problems are squashed – and in addition, some genuinely predatory people gravitate to the community because they know it’s a place where they can get away with abusive behaviour and not be challenged on it. So in many ways it ends up being worse than in mainstream communities. Same with poly.

    I don’t really know what to do about it😦 I’d like to make things more institutionally feminist, and carrying on doing my noisy thing as a writer and organiser is part of that. But, I don’t know what else could help. And right now, I don’t really feel like I can go to mainstream communities – say, to educate professionals – and be a voice for the poly (and kinky) communities, and say ‘look, this is a thing people do and it’s great and totally feminist’ or ‘this is a thing people do and it’s absolutely fine and not abusive at all ever’ because I don’t believe it.

    • Good piece & good replies. I will say that I specifically *chose* ethical non-monogamy as a feminist, because it was the only logical choice for me in terms of personal autonomy; that did not mean I had or have any problem with choosing monogamy either, but I regarded it as essential to have a life where monogamy was NOT assumed.

      As to making poly institutionally feminist, I have mixed feeling about whether I would prefer it to be institutional at all, but since stability leads to habit leads to practice leads to norms, I regard that as inevitable, and as such, I want those institutions to be ethical and feminism-compatible, whether or not they’re specifically feminist. That said, because it is such a strongly personal choice, I do feel that part of working towards equitable institutions has to come from individual relationships which offer good equitable models. That’s a lot of pressure for people, especially if those relationships are then in the public eye and subject to scrutiny (inevitably, most reporting looks for the sexiest story, so stable relationships are less appealing than those experiencing problems), and I’m wary of normalising tendencies, but I genuinely think that’s the only way to connect with the majority of people who don’t have any experience to go on. I think sacrificing some outsider chic is an acceptable trade-off for wider acceptance, PROVIDING that trade-off doesn’t require excluding those who can’t be made to fit in.

      I want to make the point that while it is age-gap relationships which evoke concern about inequity and exploitation, the core problem is that of power imbalances which are then utilised to control or to stifle dissent. Age can be one one factor, but class, disposable income, heteronormative privileges, race, gender & cis privileges, and ablism can all manifest in very unhealthy ways; strong focus the traditional ways in which power is maintained can cause us to miss the signs of coercion & abuse in relationships which don’t fit the narrative. I’m sure we’ve all seen examples of this.

      I would personally like to see an emphasis on consent culture, in particular the importance of enthusiastic consent, on all sex-ed curriculae; but in the absence of that, keeping it on the program at all poly events would be a good start. Does anyone else think a Consent Culture 101 should be a required session at Polyday or Opencon, or is this too restrictive an idea? Genuinely interested in opinions here.

  2. Jules says:

    As I said in my comment elsewhere, I think polyamory can be either an equal and supportive state of being or it can be a seething hotbed of misogyny/misandry. I don’t think a particular gender can be ‘blamed’ for this, I think that people are perfectly capable of being shitty to people regardless of gender. And with poly, you have the most volatile ingredients out there, human beings and their emotions.

  3. I think very very few things in this life are inherently feminist or mysoginist in themselves. The question ‘Is Poly Feminist?’ is as broad as asking ‘is monogamy feminist?’ or ‘are sexual relationships feminist?’ (And I know some people do argue that any male/female relationship will always be unbalanced, but I think that’s a pretty depressing way of seeing the world.) It does all come down to how the individuals involved relate to each other, and the balances of power. Anything with a Boss (be that God, Patriartch, Matriarch, or Really Loud Dominating Expert) and unequal power relations tends to gravitate towards creating inequalities of many kinds. And because women tend to end up on the bottom end of hierarchies because of the wider society we live in (2000 years of patriarchy ain’t gonna go away overnight) then that actively works against feminism.
    On the other hand if there is a free space where equality is emphasised then that can definitely be a force for change. I’m not part of any poly community, I do my thing by my own maverick self:) But what Ludi said resonates with my experiences in a lot of other places like Kinkspace and well, anywhere where sexuality is less constrained than the norm.

  4. […] asked Love Is Infinite today, and I just thought I’d paste my comment here, with some exposition. In general, I’m so […]

  5. Dragonmamma says:

    I thought this was an interesting article and some of the replies are very thought provoking. I agree with Jules that in any group/society at large there are always going to be predators and prey as this is the nature of some of mankind. And I suppose it is inevitable that while poly/kink and other such groups remain outside “the norm” they will inevitably draw interest from such people and also from those who are genuinely mistaken in their understanding of the concept. I was saddened to read that some people dont feel safe even in these spaces. It seems to me that there should be an active awareness of this as an issue in such groups and any complaints about behaviour should be taken seriously.
    I like the idea that sex education in schools should concentrate on the “consent” angle and explore in far more detail what mutual consent/agreements/boundaries really mean in real life.(and this regardless of sexual preferences and ways of life – it’s just as important in Monogamy too).
    Something else crossed my mind but I may be mistaken in my understanding here. Is it the norm for the majority of the females in these groups to be in their 30s or younger? It occurred to me that there may not be many women of an older age group present and that would make a difference to the group dynamic. If there is a preponderence of young females and older males in most of these groups I can understand quite easily how there might develop a tendency for predators to function in these circumstances (and also how new members who know very little about the dynamics of such relationships ) might develop the wrong ideas entirely. It seems to me that the presence of strong older females might reduce such situations or at least ameliorate them. However , it is probable that the majority of women of my age group have not even considered Poly/Kink relationships, brainwashed as we were in our youth by the “Statutory Norms” of the day.
    I do believe that much more awareness of the real meaning of Polyamory is needed and that this is a long slow battle. It took me quite a whilke to get my head round the fact that it is about RELATIONSHIPS and not about SEX and that even while my daughter was living proof of a successful poly grouping. How much harder must it be for the general public who have no personal knowledge of such a lifestyle and only read about it in the papers /see it on T.V.?

  6. […] non-monogamy feminist? Thus asked Love is Infinite today, and I thought I’d paste my comment here, with some exposition. In general, I’m so […]

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