The Extraordinary Political Power Of Moving ‘Beyond Monogamy’
Author Mimi Schippers talks polysexuality, threesomes, and capitalism.
The advance copy of professor/author Mimi Schippers’s latest book, Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Polyqueer Sexualities, arrived at my house exactly when I needed it: this summer as I was contemplating my own sexuality.
I had called myself polyamorous for a few years, but was still working out everything that meant for my interests and relationships. Surprising as this may sound, it was actually thanks to a supportive and exciting relationship with the partner I describe as my boyfriend that I embraced my queerness. And with the help of Beyond Monogamy, I’ve begun to see my sexuality as radical beyond just the need for visibility for those who are bisexual, pansexual, omnisexual, or otherwise defy the notion that we must be attracted to just one gender. Schippers posits that all these sexualities could challenge multiple oppressive structures.
“My concern here is what effect poly (involving more than two people) relationship choices might have, not just on the individuals involved, but also, if chosen collectively, on social relations more generally,” Schippers writes in the introduction.
I had never considered that the way I conduct my relationships (and, really, my life) could be part of de-legitimizing everything from our patriarchy to capitalism. As Schippers puts it in the conclusion of the book:
“[T]he idea of finding ‘the one and only’ and staking a claim of ownership on another person is not only gendered and racialized, it also reflects and maintains capitalist ideology and the inevitability and desirability of private property. [M]ononormativity is a central pillar of contemporary gender, race, class, and sexual relations. It operates at all levels of social organization from the makeup of the self to establishing norms and scripts for our interpersonal interactions and relationships, to structuring our social institutions on a local and national level, to legitimating political, economic, and military domination on a global scale.”
While Schippers uses academic language, the book is definitely accessible to those without backgrounds in gender and race theory — in no small part because she shares a set of vignettes in a narrative style and with explicit detail. All four have obvious presumed outcomes; if they were part of a movie plot, the viewer would have expectations for conflict and resolution. They read, for instance, like this:
A woman has a twelve-year affair with a man other than her husband. Over the twelve years, despite pleas from her lover to leave her husband, she refuses because she loves them both. One evening, her husband — knowing he shouldn’t, but unable to resist the temptation — listens to a voicemail message on his wife’s cell phone. It is a message from her lover saying that he can’t live without her and needs to see her. Enraged, the husband swears to himself that he will find the other man and kill him.
A married man tells a friend that he and his wife had a threesome with another woman. With pride, he tells the friend that it was “every guy’s dream” and that he had a great time. When the friend asks him if he’d ever have a threesome with his wife and another man, he balks with repulsion and says, “No way, ‘m not gay, and I would never want to see my wife have sex with someone else.”
Using these vignettes and her own experiences, Schippers re-imagines the outcomes of constricting scenarios using a poly lens. For people of all genders, sexualities, and love styles, it is truly inspiring to explore alternative possibilities for satisfying and nurturing relationships, as well as the possible effect these could have on our culture.
I was so into the book, I reached out to the author. She was generous with her time and her words.
[Lightly edited for length and context — no really, I promise.]
I LOVE the word “polyqueer.” To many it will simply sound like a descriptor for queer polyamorous people. How is it distinct from other, more well-known, sexualities?
Terms like heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual refer specifically to the gender of your intimate partners or the people you desire. Rather than emphasize gender, the concept polyqueer places focus on the number of partners. That’s the “poly” part.
The term queer has been around for a long time, and it refers to efforts to challenge social inequality by pushing against the norms rather than try to assimilate to them. I think it is really important to distinguish between the kinds of sex and relationships that keep social hierarchies around race, class, and gender in place and those that challenge them. That’s the “queer” part.
In the book I introduce the concept “polyqueer” to work through the potential for poly sexualities (sex and relationships that include more than two people) to challenge or flatten social hierarchies around gender and race, and to a lesser extent, class. The key is that I explored the potential, not the inevitability, of poly sexualities to be queer. There are definitely ways to do poly sex and relationships that fully reproduce gender, race, or class inequalities. I was interested in exploring how they might encourage us to rethink our own sense of masculinity and femininity and the way we do relationships so that we don’t reproduce social hierarchies.
I had never considered men would need the women in their lives for the preservation of their friendship dynamic with each other. As you wrote: “The presence of the woman as the object of exchange heterosexualizes the men’s bond with each other.”
Is homophobia that entrenched? And what is it about polyamory that causes men to, as you write, “experience a shift in their masculinity?”
I want to draw a distinction between representations of relationships in media and literature and actual lived relationships.
In that quote about the presence of the woman as the object of exchange between men, I am paraphrasing a key part of Eve Sedgwick’s [one of the originators of Queer Theory] definition of homosocial bonds between men. Her focus was on literature, and how stories about erotic triangulation are written. For Sedgwick, the presence of the woman as an object of desire that men compete for is necessary to “straighten” out the men in literary bromances (to use a more contemporary term). I argue that if the men in these tales of erotic triangulation just agreed to get along and accept that they will both be in a relationship with the woman, it opens narrative space to “queer” the men’s masculinities. For instance, rather than being competitive, they might become cooperative, and instead of treating the woman as an object of exchange, they could take her seriously as a full person who desires both of them and insists they work it out.
Having said that, it is true that, in the real world, lots of people assume that men are too jealous and possessive to “share” their partners with other men. More than one person has told me something along the lines of, “Men are just different. Sure, maybe women could handle it, but I don’t think any man would be okay with his wife/girlfriend being in love with another man.”
When I say in the book that polyamory has a potential to shift men’s sense of masculinity, I am relying on the groundbreaking and important research done by Elisabeth Sheff [author of The Polyamorists Next Door]. Some of the men she interviewed said that they had to reject societal definitions of masculinity and become less possessive and controlling. So this is not just about introducing polyamory in fiction; this is about how polyamory as a lived experience might change how people of all genders relate each other.
In the acknowledgments you thank your parents who, you write, “taught me that polyamory can come in all shapes and sizes.” Most of us who remain private about non-monogamy do so (at least in part) due to concern that family won’t understand — or worse. Did you always know they would be accepting, and how did they teach you about polyamory?
My parents, especially my mother, have been astonishingly accepting of me being polyamorous. When I first told her about being in a relationship with two men, she laughed and said, “I always knew you were strange, but I didn’t know you were THAT strange!” I don’t want to go into any detail here to protect their privacy, but after having talked with my mother about what polyamory is, she didn’t see me as so very strange after all. My father has never spoken a word about it to me, but I can sense a shift in our relationship. I have a hunch that he doesn’t see me as so very strange anymore either.
The news cycle is currently flooded with examples of toxic masculinity. The scenarios you describe in the example vignettes revolve around events that would be seen as especially threatening to those who are invested heavily in gender norms and power dynamics. How would queering heteromasculinity benefit all genders, not just those of us who are oppressed by cishet (cisgender, heterosexual) men?
When I think about oppression, I tend to think about broad social processes that confer privileges to some groups and, in proportion, disadvantage other groups, rather than interpersonal relationships in which one person oppresses another individual.
I was just watching Real Time with Bill Maher and Andrew Sullivan, a self-identified white, gay man, was a guest on his panel. The video of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women was the topic of conversation, and Sullivan said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “I don’t have a horse in this race,” as if being a gay man meant he was outside of gender relations because he doesn’t have sex with women!
I believe that the monogamous, heterosexual couple as an idealized way to do sexual and emotional intimacy and set up families has played a significant role throughout American history in establishing and maintaining certain assumptions about gender, race, and class. The alleged inability or unwillingness to conform to monogamous coupling has been trotted out to legitimate white supremacy, heterosexism, transphobia or cisgernderism, class inequality, feminism, immigration, and so on.
Who has benefitted most from this? Gender-conforming, heterosexual, white, class-privileged men. I don’t think queering hetero-masculinity is the only or even the most effective way to chip away at that privilege. However, I do think that poly sexualities might be one tool among many to challenge white, cisgender, hetero-masculine privilege. In that way, I think most of us — regardless of our gender identities or who we have relationships with — can benefit.
A fair amount of the discussion in the book around the double standard of presumed/praised behavior in men vs. women characterizes what behavior is acceptable in terms of how men see each other and the competition between them. For example: “Fucking another man’s wife is to gain power and status over that man.” Are we really still in a place where hetermononormativity and masculinity are driven by who has more (or the best) possessions?
I’m not sure it is about who has more or the best possessions. I think it’s about control of and possession of women as a mark of successful heterosexual masculinity. And yes, I do believe we are still in that place.
Your dissection of threesomes by gender roles was fascinating. What makes the WWM (woman-woman-man) threesome so often heteronormative in orientation, while WMM (woman-man-man) threesomes are “off the ‘straight’ line” — for both men and women? And what makes the WMM (woman-man-man) triad so stable (i.e. healthy and long-term) — if that’s been determined?
Let me be clear. I am not in any way saying that threesomes with two women and a man are, by definition, not queer. Nor am I saying that threesomes with two men and a woman are always queer. Far from it.
In contemporary American heterosexual culture, there is a certain acceptance to having threesomes if they include two men taking turns on the girl, hot-wifing (where a husband “allows” another man to have sex with “his” wife and he watches), or one lucky straight guy and two hot, bi women. In each case, the men or man are situated as the active subject and the women or woman as the object(s). In contrast, when we are offered a representation of two men and a woman having a threesome in which the men get it on together as well as with the woman, we call it “bisexual” porn. Really. Google that shit! (Or not, depending on how good your spam filter is.)
I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think that what I call our collective “threesome imaginary” does a lot of ideological work to keep threesomes “straight” for straight men even when two women are involved.
In the book I ask what effect it might have on our collective sexual imaginary if we eroticized (not just in porn, but in mainstream media) images or stories that depicted two straight-identified men and one woman having a threesome in which everyone gets it on with everyone — and it’s fun and hot? How might that change perceptions of straight men? Straight women? What if that threesome was interracial and intimate? I was interested in how these sorts of polyqueer representations might challenge sexism and racism.
That is not to say, however, that WWM threesomes can’t queer gender or race in practice! Based on experience, WWM threesomes are far queerer than our collective imagination or uninitiated straight men would believe them to be. I have a partner who identifies as a man, and he describes threesomes with two women like jumping rope: You spend a lot of time just waiting for the right time to jump in.
Like I said before, there is nothing inherently queer or transgressive about any threesome in practice. It depends on what people do and how they treat each other that matters, not their gender, race, or sexual identities.
I’m really excited at the prospect that my sexuality could undercut not only compulsory monogamy, but many of the structures that it upholds. At the end of the introduction you explain that you want to “reorient my readers toward polyqueer sexualities as a fruitful line of feminist and queer theoretical and political intervention and innovation.”
What makes polyqueer sexuality so promisingly powerful?
Well, I don’t think the term “polyqueer” is any more theoretically powerful than any of the other terms developed in critical race, queer, and feminist work. I offer it as an addition, not a replacement of any concepts developed in these important areas of critical theory.
I do, however, think there is some real untapped potential in polyqueer sexualities to push against capitalist, white supremacist, and male dominant culture and structures. In addition to the points I’ve made about gender and race, for instance, I also think there is real potential to challenge the idea that humans are naturally competitive and possessive — which is a cornerstone to capitalist ideology. They also challenge the idea that households should ideally include two and only two adults and dependent children. Multi-adult households have all sorts of implications for resource consumption, economic vulnerability, childcare, and so on.
In the end, I’m not saying everyone should be polyamorous; I’m saying that monogamy and polyamory should be conscious and readily available choices. More importantly, I hope to encourage people to think about “coupling” or doing polyamory in broader terms than just individual choice.
The way we do intimate relationships has always and continues to be inextricable from larger social processes and inequalities. “The Monogamous Heterosexual Couple” as an ideal has wreaked havoc on people who can’t or choose not to live according to its mandate. This compulsory ideal is embedded in and legitimizes institutionalized structures of race, class, sexual, and gender inequality. While I certainly don’t think polyqueer sex and relationships are a political panacea, I do believe they have untapped potential to undermine those structures.