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Given the recent surge in libertarian celebrations of feminism and particularly the version of sex positive feminism that is expressed through discussion of one’s own sexual liberation, I’ve decided to offer up a critical perspective that draws chiefly on my own experiences, and especially my blunders, with polyamory.
Although it’s not my intent to piss on the parade by any stretch – sexual freedom should indeed be celebrated, and I’m glad it’s being discussed with increasing volume – we’ve heard a lot about how polyamory is super-fun and awesome and liberating and simple and natural. I think it’s also important to weigh the not-so-glamorous aspects of polyamory. And while critiquing things we disagree with is relatively easy, being critical of a practice I engage in and support is a challenge. But my cautions come strictly from a place of love.
When I was 21, my 18 year old girlfriend asked me if was willing to try a polyamorous relationship. Since I never felt entirely comfortable with monogamy my response was an almost instant yes. It felt like the natural thing to do. She was a stunningly gorgeous and intelligent college freshman and I was about to graduate, forget I ever went to school, and take mymusical shenanigans on the road full time.
Attempting to hold one another back from our impulses and desires seemed selfish and futile. So she introduced me to a book titled The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures. In a nutshell, the book argues that everything needs to be consensual, open, and honest for poly, or any relationship, to function properly. Makes perfect sense, right?
Although it sounds simple, relationships are anything but. They’re complicated and require work, reciprocation, and a certain element of selflessness. This last variable can be especially challenging and elusive for a staunch individualist, let alone two. And when you start adding more people into the fold, the complications can increase exponentially. Whether we want to admit it or not, even polyamorous relationships require plenty of compromise and sacrifice.
For me, poly really boils down to never placing limits, barriers, and boundaries on love. It’s also entirely possible to have lovers that you’re not physically intimate with. Love and relationships can take all forms and shouldn’t be boxed into a preconceived notion.
Moreover, polyamory liberates women (and men) and empowers them to claim agency over their own sexual needs and desires without feeling controlled or shamed. It also liberates us from the ego-centric notion that you can get everything you want and need in life from one person, or that Ican somehow provide “it all” for you. (If you can make that work, more power to you!)
But sometimes even poly advocates forget to play by their own rules.
When my girlfriend started admitting certain lies or half-truths she had been telling about her other relationships, I wasn’t jealous. I was angry that she would insult me so by lying. Why would she possibly be scared to tell me the truth about her sex life when we’ve both accepted that she will have one that sometimes doesn’t directly involve me? But she wanted to spare my feelings, of course, which really translates to sparing her from my potential outrage.
In our years together we’ve also dealt with her being slut-shamed for being poly while I was praised for it. I’ve faced the helpless feeling of receiving a call from her when another sexual partner wouldn’t accompany her to the clinic—or even speak to her—after a night when the condom broke. Sometimes I’ve been an ass. Sometimes she’s been one too.
If you’re reading this and wondering how we could persist in such a dysfunctional state of being, I’m purposely highlighting some of our “worsts” to make a point – polyamory, like anything else, isn’t always going to smell like the botanical gardens. But how you deal with strife and persevere though it can make all of the difference. I never owned my own feelings to the fullest extent, and it was to my detriment as well as hers.
And I don’t blame her for her mistakes, as I hope she doesn’t blame me for mine. We were young, in love, selfish, stupid, exploring new avenues, and figuring it all out. And boy did I learn more about myself and relationships in the process than if I had never given poly a chance. Now I’m older, slightly less selfish, still plenty stupid, but with enough perspective to own up to my own faults. And all of the aforementioned blunders aside, we somehow stuck together by experiencing very difficult growing pains together that established a bond stronger than any other I’ve felt for a non-family member.
I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from experimenting with polyamory or any other unconventional, non-monogamous relationships. Despite all of the heavy weather I incurred, it immeasurably changed my life for the better. However, I don’t want the larger, central idea to escape us while we’re busy celebrating and congratulating ourselves for being sexually liberated (as we should).
Living out beliefs about liberty is hard work, but it’s well worth doing. We libertarianish types often bemoan how difficult it would be to, say, dismantle the welfare and warfare states, or get the state out of marriage, or abolish the IRS, or end the prohibition of vice. And so it is with polyamory. When we pretend the hard stuff is easy, we don’t do ourselves any favors – because we set inappropriate expectations, invite easy challenges, and don’t prepare people for how challenging it can be to live a belief.
Stay vigilant and true to yourself – and to those that you love and love you back. That’s amore.
Craig D. Schlesinger is a musician residing in Nashville, TN. He plays bass for Mike Marsh’s solo project, Paper, as well as various artists that record at Mike’s studio, The Paper Mill. Most recently, his rumblings can be heard on the new Marsh-produced Radar vs Wolf album. Craig also blogs on liberty and music at Spatial Orientation and is a proud Bleeding Heart Libertarian. See if you can spot their logo in the RvW video. (lemme know if that works)
I was poly in the early 80s, and find them to be the opposite. Very interested in rules (overly interested) and willing to talk any idea about poly or any proposed or actual relationship to death. The reason I’m not a practicing poly right now is these items. I also don’t like hearing details from a partner about other relationships. Pollies are worse than any conventional relationship about issues of “cheating.”
Very insightful, thanks. I think it’s funny how no matter what type of relationship one is in it always seems to boil down to honest communication and trust. What I’ve learned (sadly, the hard way) is that no matter how honest you are, in order to get trust you need to give trust…sometimes that means you’re going to get shit on.
What I’ve learned (painfully, I might add) is that it is impossible to give someone unconditional love without mutual trust – you, because you don’t really know what your love would have to overcome and them, because for some reason they cannot or will not test you with bits and pieces of their life. Ironically, communication isn’t the answer because lying, either outright or by omission, is still communicating…which takes us back to trust. Vicious f’n circle.
What the answer is I’d share if I knew.
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