On Romantic Relationships as Political Acts
When the editors of The New Establishment asked me to write something on the subject of sex and relationships for Hitting the Spot, I didn’t really know where to begin. Opening with that sentence implies, accurately, that I still don’t.
Even if I limit the focus to my own experiences, meaning those of a heterosexual man, the sheer scale of the subject matter is daunting.
I write about Capitalism. I write about politics. I have never written about sex. I have never written about relationships.
Then I remembered something.
In 1970, an essay by Carol Hanisch was published in Notes From the Second Year: Women’s Liberation under the title “The Personal is Political”.
From Wikipedia (oh yeah, I use Wikipedia as a source): “Hanisch sought to rebut the idea that sex, appearance, abortion, childcare, and the division of household labor were merely personal issues without political importance.”
In her essay, Hanisch writes: “personal problems are political problems.”
We live in a world in which people who are deeply in love with each other are not a part of each other’s lives; in which people who are not in love with each other are married and have children together; in which the very definition of romantic love is intrinsically linked to ancient religious doctrines and patriarchal capitalism.
Every romantic relationship in the modern western world is influenced by the collective cultural and political history of that society. Whether that influence manifests as an acquiescence to the demands or a rebellion against them, the influence remains.
As such, every romantic relationship is a political act. Regardless of sex, gender, number of people involved, or anything else; every romantic relationship contains within it the culture and politics of the parties involved, their beliefs on what the world should look like, and the conflicts between their conditioning and those beliefs. All this before we even approach the quagmire of all of those things colliding all over again once another individual is involved.
One could even argue that romantic and sexual relationships and the way one conducts oneself within them are the most political of all acts.
I do not wish to make the facile point here that personal relationships and diplomatic ones are the same. That’s reductive and not what I mean at all.
Rather, sexual relationships are the place wherein every aspect of how we believe our fellow human beings should be treated, and how we expect them to treat us, will be called in to demonstration.
We live in a time that is more accepting of different approaches to romance than at any other point I am aware of in history. Though true equality and freedom sadly remain goals rather than realities, the opportunity for self-expression in the sexual context is far greater than that enjoyed by earlier generations.
It is a magnificent time. The growing popular acceptance of and curiosity about polyamory, kink, gender-fluidity, role-reversals and anything else one cares to name is giving rise to an explosion of personal exploration that cannot help but remind us all of the sixties.
Many of the same dangers of the sixties are present as well. The advent of the pill and concepts of free love coinciding with a plethora of suddenly available hallucinogenics was undoubtedly liberating, but it also led to situations of young women being manipulated and preyed upon by men who understood how to turn this exploration to their advantage. Orgies where many of those involved were simply unable to consent by any modern definition were commonplace.
Today the sexual and kink scenes have matured, and taken responsibility for much of those past crimes. Organisations such as Killing Kittens place women at the centre of decision-making, prioritising their pleasure and consent and trying to create an environment devoid of the toxic, manipulative, and controlling masculinity that hounds the heels of female sexual liberation, simultaneously coveting and slut-shaming.
Interestingly, the current insult hurled at liberals by the right is “cuck”, short for “cuckold”.
The most insulting thing the banner-bearers of toxic masculinity can think of is built on the notion that a man comfortable with his romantic partner’s sexual liberation is the worst thing one could possibly be. Like the homophobic slurs of the past, it has revealed that once again a man who is unafraid of feminine freedom is the ultimate threat.
An aside: I reiterate that this is an essay about romantic relationships between men and women because that is the only kind I can even attempt to offer insight in to.
In the rebellion against such bigotry, what can happen is that the more liberally-minded find themselves engaging in romantic relationships as solely theoretical practices. There is the possibility of viewing any negative emotions arising out of this as manifestations of the internalised toxic masculinity they are fighting against; problems to be solved rather than signs that the relationship must be re-evaluated.
Polyamory provides an excellent example of this. To me, polyamory is similar to atheism. Where atheism is simply the absence of an adherence to any particular religion, polyamory is an absence of adherence to any particular relationship model. It embraces communication between all parties as the most important aspect of any relationship, and sees the ebbs and flows of emotion as part and parcel of life. It is possible to be monogamous for decades and still be poly, and it is possible to have uninhibited sex with multiple different partners five times a day.
What can happen, however, is that polyamory is used as a shield against honest communication — much in the same way that atheism can be. Just as dogmatic atheists (I’m looking at you, Richard Dawkins) can become as browbeating as those they fight against, so can people who use the label of polyamory as a way to mask their emotional unavailability in fact hamper the vulnerable communication that polyamory is meant to enable.
In what may be the most obvious statement ever written, emotions are complex things.
It is possible to be the most liberally-minded person in the world, and be naturally drawn to a traditional, heterosexual marriage. It is possible to be the most devoutly religious person in the world, and yet feel a yearning for gay orgies every Sunday morning.
Neither is a problem with the individual. The cause of internal conflict is the separation between an idea of what one is supposed to want and what one actually wants.
Which brings us back to romantic relationships as a political act.
We are moving from a time of romantic constraint to one of romantic liberation. The process is by no means complete, but it is ongoing. All of us, consciously or otherwise, are participating in the drafting of the social mores that will govern a new culture of sex, love, and romance.
I do think we should all be aware of this. Does your relationship (or relationships) reflect what you believe a loving and caring relationship should look like? Not on the surface as it appears to the outside world or as a theoretical concept, but in its privacy. Is this how you, in your heart of hearts, define love for yourself, free from any other considerations?
These questions matter. The relationships we have now will model love for generations to come, and in ways unparalleled since the conception of marriage.
This is the two-sided coin of liberty: it carries with it immense responsibility.