The opening sentence of an article titled Non-Monogamy: Do Open Relationships Work? is “Non-monogamy is about one thingâ€“sex.” If that’s true, does it mean that monogamy is not about sex? Or that non-monogamy can’t be about things other than sex? Sadly, this poorly written article continues with the sex-negative rhetoric, lumping all non-monogamous (also called polyamorous or poly or open) relationships into one nymphomaniac category that the author, working on assumptions rather than research, opposes to The One True Way, Monogamy.
Yes, it is that much of a train wreck. But once I was done foaming at the mouth at the author’s offensive stereotypes, I realized that this provides a valuable opportunity to discuss topics that are pertinent to monogamy, non-monogamy, and the spectrum of relationship behaviors and choices in between the two. This will be the first of two essays (or more, if my eyes don’t bleed from rereading that horrific article) exploring these issues.
Simply deconstructing that first line, that non-monogamy is only about sex, could be an article in and of itself, so it’s what I’ll focus on in this first essay. Is anything just about sex? Is even sex just about sex? Because we exist within culture, and culture is an abstract symbolic web of meanings through which we assign value to our actions and beliefs, nothing is ever so simple as it appears. Even physical acts like sex or eating are not simply physical acts: they also have emotional meanings, spiritual resonances, ways of fitting within our worldview and connecting us to the people and world around us (this is my anthropology background speaking, ain’t it grand?). And since I’m a huge social constructivist, I believe that the social meanings of actions are determined largely by society, not by any natural or inherent rules. So sex is always about more than sex, and its meanings are constructed by the people experiencing it (sometimes this is an active, willful process, and sometimes the meanings we inherit from tradition are the ones that determine how we experience something). If sex is more than the sum of its parts–more than the sum of the sweaty bits and panting and bodily fluids going into the act–then sex between people, whether monogamous or not, will always mean more than just sex.
Granted, some sex is mostly just about the sex. Some people like one-night stands, in the context of being single or polyamorous or cheating. Some people, whether in a monogamous relationship or not, just want to have a pleasurable, intimate experience. Some people know that they sleep better after an orgasm. My point is, even when sex is being reduced more or less to its parts, that it’s okay to want sex for its own sake. Desiring and initiating and enjoying sex is something that lots of people, whether they identify as monogamous or not, tend to do. Wanting sex, despite the sex-negative rhetoric of contemporary American culture, is not an inherently slutty or poly thing.
The other aspect of the “poly = sex” statement I’d like to address is about the emotional ramifications of non-monogamy. As research on non-monogamy has shown, all romantic relationships have sexual, emotional, and practical concerns: poly folks are welcome to seek any of the three elements elsewhere, whereas the monogamous partner or soulmate is supposed to provide everything for their other half. But even couples in happily monogamous relationships get some emotional support outside the relationship, whether in the form of family gatherings, coffee with friends, or venting to workout buddies. In that sense, non-monogamous relationships aren’t so different.
Thus, to reduce non-monogamous relationships to just being about sex is to ignore the multiple ways in which humans can meet one another’s needs and feel drawn to interact with one another, sexually or not. People can have strong feelings for each other that can be classified as romantic, but may never be expressed sexually. Many friendships have flirtatious elements but are not consummated sexually. Similarly, sometimes non-monogamous folks want to have the freedom to go on dates with people outside their primary relationships–sometimes it’s about the sex, yes, but sometimes it’s also about enjoying the company of someone new, someone fun to hang out with while unburdened by the baggage of a long-term relationship.
Stay tuned for another essay unpacking more of the assumptions informing beliefs about how monogamy and non-monogamy are different.
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