June 10, 2018

Polyamory: Figuring It Out | Coming Out | Being Out

A Long Ass Polyamorous Journey

I've been polyamorous my entire life. At this point I am sure of it. And while there is a certain relief in knowing and saying it aloud, and I am lucky to have haphazardly fallen literally ass backwards into the most appropriate relationship(s) of my life, there is still a certain resentment coupled with that certain relief. Resentment because in just a month or so, I will be turning 30, and spent most of my adult life believing there was something wrong with me.

I have never loved one person at a time. Ever. Indeed, most people have not. Most people love their parents, their siblings, their friends. This is not altogether radical. It's only when it comes to romantic love and sex that people suddenly lose their minds at the suggestion that one is not enough. And while I could point to all sorts of causes like organized religion and the puritanical (hypocritical) roots of the United States, why society is like this is besides the point as far as I'm concerned. My concern is creating a safe space for people who do not fit into the confines of binary thinking to grow up feeling accepted, first and foremost by ourselves.

Dilemma 

I grew up not knowing that polyamory existed, let alone what it was. It was not in the media. It was not in school. It was not represented in popular culture and it certainly wasn't explained to me by my family. For all I knew it didn't exist. Cheating was morally wrong, and polygamy was illegal, so monogamy was the only way. Not that it was explained to me this way. It wasn't, the same way that no one ever explained to me that I was straight. (And I'm not, by the way. Holla at me, LGBTQ community!) It was just assumed that I would be. It was the presumed default setting. I can't tell you how many times a doe eyed adult crooned the words, one day, when you get married, or, one day, when you have kids before I'd even dropped a damn egg!

But my eye tended to do the thing it wasn't supposed to do - wander. And not just my eye, but my heart. I won't even get into the fact that sometimes my confused little eye wandered over to the girl in my biology class, which was odd, because I was supposedly straight. That's an article for another day. Point being, I never had just one crush. One love interest. There were always many at once. Many people with whom I could imagine a path forward. But society was pretty clear on the rules of the game, meaning going forward necessitated that I make a choice.

I can say with absolute consistency that it was making that choice that damned nearly every failed relationship I had from age 18-29.

Loss

Monogamy isn't evil in and of itself. It's a social construct, as is marriage, and it works for people. I've seen it. (::waves at big brother from another mother::) The problem with monogamy is that it has become not only the default relationship style, but the only recognized and accepted relationship style by society at large. For people to whom monogamy comes naturally, the name of the game is finding "the one", and there are definitely challenges to that. Indeed, some people never do. Some people do much later in life than they'd hoped. But what if the problem isn't the you can't find the one? What if you keep finding the one, over and over and over again?

According to society there are a myriad of issues with this. Society claims that you can only really love one person at a time. So if you've found yourself claiming to be in love with two, or three, or four - no. That isn't love. That isn't real. Further, you may indeed believe that you love multiple people, but what if each of those people only has eyes for you? Now you have to choose, society tells you. Now you have to let someone, or multiple someones, go.

I learned this particular agony for the first time when I was 19 and fell in love with someone over summer break while already in a serious relationship. I kept it chaste for as long as I could but eventually the dam broke and I don't think I need to go into detail regarding the social fallout - we all know what world we live in. I can't describe the exquisite pain of mourning the loss of not one love, but two. Or of sitting around with a legal pad and pen, making lists, trying to decide between two people. Society would have us believe it is a choice between who is better for you. But if you're not wired that way, the question you're really asking when you draw that ven-diagram or whatever brand of nerdiness you default to, is how much pain from loss can I withstand? Who will it hurt less to live without? And sometimes that question, too, is impossible.

Madonna/Whore Paradox

Oh, hi. Did I mention that I'm a woman? ::waves::

If I were a man, things might have gone a bit differently for me. In high school. In college. In the workplace. When I eventually found my niche (LGBTQ friendly/artsy/East Village) I may have still faced some struggles before discovering polyamory. But I think the story might have read a bit differently. It's no accident that in my most frustrated moments I have been found belting out If I Were a Boy in various karaoke establishments.

Rather than having been slut shamed, for example, for having been involved with two of the three straight men in my performing arts high school (not simultaneously and over the course of six years!) I may have been a ladies man. I may have been that shy guy who was into theatre and skinny jeans before they were trendy, singing protest songs in the hallway and having loving relationships without hard commitment sort of like the sixties. Instead? I was a pariah. I was labeled slutty and dirty and accused of promiscuously participating in sex acts I couldn't even define at the time. All because I'd made the mistake of getting romantically involved with more than one person in the same microcosm.

When I cheated on my boyfriend in college - with the one person I'd fallen in love with - rather than vicious rumors spreading that distorted the truth and painted me as the 7/11 of women, I probably would have experienced...well...nothing. Nothing befell the teammates of my then basketball player boyfriend. They cheated on their girlfriends. Deliberately. Habitually. Everyone knew. No one said or did a damn thing. It was "normal". But when a woman cheats, regardless of circumstances, of honesty, of remorse. The response is ludicrously disproportionate.

When I finally came to the conclusion that the only sure way to avoid hurting anyone was to embrace my single status and live out my days Clooney style, still the problems found me. Again I found love twice in the same place, and the men involved balked at the idea of not being my only one. Again I was faced with the unwelcome dilemma of choosing one or losing both, except neither was too keen on choosing me back because my involvement with them both at once meant my reputation had been mired. Had I been a man in the same scenario each of them would have felt lucky to have been the "chosen one". I would have been a catch, not a cautionary tale.

I'm not defending the cheating. That was unethical and regrettable. But besides that, the only mistake I ever made was having been born without a penis in a patriarchy.

Women live in a world that traps us in a double bind. We are plagued by the madonna/whore paradox. We are told that we will only be able to "find a husband" if we are or appear to be virginal, and pure, and good. Men are taught only to value us as more than sex objects if they are the only ones to have "had" us. Women are also taught through misogynistic social conditioning that it doesn't take much to destroy our reputations and become whores, even though men experience no repercussions for the same behaviors. We are programmed to ignore our own wants - our real wants - and instead to want to be wanted. To embrace our own objectification until the right man (who it is assumed has at this point sowed his wild oats) chooses us to settle down with. We are encouraged to work very, very hard at being worthy of being chosen (by this man who is not being measured against the same asinine standard).

My point is that being a woman in a patriarchy is hard as it is, but being a polyamorous woman in a patriarchy that doesn't acknowledge polyamory is a special kind of hell. Every choice that would lead to your happiness is condemned. Every choice you are encouraged to make would ultimately condemn you to misery. Virginity and scarcity are the pillars that you are expected to build your life upon, in a body that has an overwhelming capacity to receive love, with a heart that has an overwhelming capacity to give love. So your happiness comes at the price of social isolation and punishment, and social acceptance comes at the price of your happiness. And what's more, if you are hetero, your potential partners have been conditioned to value your love only if it is coupled with exclusivity, and to devalue not only your love, but your body and even your personhood when it is not. There is a moral value judgement that is attached to a woman's romantic life that sets her up to fail if she does not fulfill the limited role she has been prescribed, and all the while men have been given carte blanche to shamelessly capitalize on the double standard that seeks, one way or another, to entrap her.

Loneliness

Being alone seemed like the only option available to me if I didn't want to climb the exclusive relationship ladder in the traditional sense, and if what I did want was never going to happen. At first blush it may seem like being single would have obvious benefits. I could have my cake and eat it too, right? Wrong. Because again, this is a patriarchy, and I am not a man.

Leave aside ugly rumors and reputations for a moment, because while it isn't ideal, those things can be avoided with secrecy Les Liaisons Dangereuses style. It is deeper and more personal than public opinion. I don't like being objectified. I don't like being wanted only for what I look like, or only for what "fun" I can be in bed. I don't like the idea of casual sex, and I absolutely detest the reality of it. I don't like being pursued like some kind of trophy because I am not a goal. I am a person. And so given the choice of casual sex vs. no sex at all...

The physical loneliness is shit, but it's bearable. It's the emotional loneliness that starts to eat at you. And then you meet someone, and even though you know better, you try again. My relationships were deep dives. I'd go underwater for a while, but eventually I couldn't breathe and I'd come violently thrashing to the surface before I drowned. As my relationships got shorter and shorter and I decidedly became the breaker rather than the breakee, it seemed apparent that I was just more whole on my own. It seemed like I wanted to be single.

But if that was true then why was I still so sad? And if I did in fact want love, why couldn't I seem to sit still in it for more than three months at a time?

Social Pressure to Get "Wifed Up"

When I see a diamond ring I think of child labor and genocide. When I see a bride dressed like a cream puff pastry gliding down an aisle, I picture her father also carrying a bag of gold and a goat. I've dreaded the eventual appropriation of the last name of every man I've ever dated before finally coming to the conclusion that I'm never changing my name because I am me. My idea of marriage involves a beach, a sunset, bare feet, my lover, our lovers, a spiritual bond, and yeah...okay...I suppose some tax breaks. But when I do it, if I do it, it will be a far cry from the patriarchal bullshit I've been force fed since my inception.

I started to identify as non-monogamous when I was 27, and learning about polyamory around the same time. And yet I still continued to date monogamous people despite the absolute turmoil it caused for nearly three years after the fact. Not because of the social pressure I felt when I wasn't in a relationship, but because of the temporary relief from the cruelty I'd grown accustomed to when I was.

When you are the woman who goes to bars alone, and could give a fuck whether anyone is paying attention to you because you're in your own world, and who more closely identifies with Prince than Adele, people look at you a certain way. Sometimes with respect and admiration, though the assumption that you're promiscuous never goes away and those people never stop flirting and low key trying to fuck you. But there is also pity, especially from older women, warning you that your youth is fleeting, your looks will fade, and who will want you then? Be smart, they warn you. Strike while the iron is hot. Marry the self obsessed guy even though you cringe when he touches you and listening to him speak is like watching paint dry. And whatever you do get over this "girl" phase because bisexuality is only cute in bars at 2 AM in your twenties. And don't forget - you're aging!

However, when you walk in just about anywhere on the arm of a gentleman (even if he's a pompous ass dressed in a gentleman costume) and he introduces you as his girlfriend. Oh, how stark the contrast is. I imagine the only word more powerful and transformative is wife. Your status elevates so quickly you can feel yourself on the elevator! People assume all sorts of things about you, except that they're - gasp! - good things! They assume, for example, that you're a good person. ::snorts:: Like...an actual fucking person. They assume that you're not a slut! They assume that you have a brain, and then they ask you really flattering questions, like whether they can pick said brain! They forgive otherwise damning wardrobe because, alas, you are already claimed, and to comment on said wardrobe or the assets (no pun intended) it enhances would be an affront to the man that has claimed you, and the same men who are quick to throw their dicks in the ring of a single woman are very cautious not to offend a boyfriend or husband. Regardless of the satisfaction of the relationship itself, in the eyes of society, the title of "girlfriend" or "wife", the existence of a blood soaked ring on a certain finger, is the highest esteem a woman can achieve, and it is only through this achievement that she graduates from public sex object to human being, albeit a human being who is possessed by the man she is with.

And thus conformity seduces even women who balk at traditional values, because just as harshly as society punishes resistance, it rewards compliance handsomely. People will smile, and nod with approval, and flock to you telling you how cute you look with your self obsessed fool. How lucky you are to be with the man who can't find your clitoris despite the fact that it's pierced. How adorable your children would look as the father-to-be chugs another beer on his way to black out drunkenness. Calm down, any exes reading this - the hyperbole isn't about you. It's about the fact that society rewards people for being in relationships, even if the relationships themselves aren't good! Even if they lack substance. Even if the people inside are miserable. Because society assumes that everyone will eventually pair off. Society has set that goal for you. So when you're single, you're failing. And if you're in a relationship - congratulations! You did it! You win.

Except...

Sexism: Cheating

So remember how I was talking about the double standard? The double standard rewards men at women's expense. Via the double standard women are damned if they do and damned if they don't, meanwhile men can have their cake and eat it too in nearly all stages of commitment. The double standard tells men that it is natural for them to cheat, or to want to cheat, while it is unnatural for a woman to behave or want to behave in the same way.

This particular mindset made finding agreeable partners very difficult for me. Some men I tried to date would initially agree when asked about an open relationship, until they fully processed the fact that the relationship would be open for both of us. Then we were back to monogamy. Then there were guys who were fine with an open relationship with one huge caveat - don't fall in love. Which limited all options outside the relationship to casual sex. Which didn't interest me. And then, whoops, back to monogamy again. Or, the real princes would tell me all about their deep sense of morality, or how their bodies were temples and they were afraid of contracting STI's, in order to lure me into reluctant monogamy, only to later learn that they themselves were cheating!

I blame patriarchy for this. I think there are far more men who are truly polyamorous, but because of societal conditioning these men are much more comfortable experiencing the love of multiple, unwitting women who (to their knowledge) are only intimate with them. Society conditions men to see women as possessions and discourages them from "sharing" us. Via cheating, some polyamorous men can hide behind a mask of monogamy and have their romantic needs met, but will do so unethically and ironically behind the backs of women who indeed share the same desire and needs that they do. The only difference is that because women are conditioned to deny and ignore our sexuality while men are conditioned to embrace and explore it, we end up getting the short end of the stick.

Again, no pun intended.

DADT & DFIL

There was one brief time in my early twenties where it seemed like I might actually get to be happy. I met a guy, we hit it off, we started dating exclusively. About a year and a half in I told him that I thought I might be bisexual. He encouraged me to explore that, helped me through it. When I came to the conclusion that I was indeed bisexual he even encouraged me to be with women; said he wouldn't consider it cheating.

Then, about two years in I confessed, through shaky breaths, tears, and shame, that I loved him and still wanted to be with him, but I desired other people frequently and I wasn't sure how long I could keep it up. To my surprise, he expressed a similar dilemma, and together we made the choice to open our relationship. However, the agreement we came to was DADT (don't ask, don't tell) and DFIL (don't fall in love). We navigated this pretty cleanly for a while. We even eventually formed a sort of quad relationship with a couple we were close with. For a while things seemed perfect. For a while...

Then it came out that the guy on the other side of the quad was cheating. A lot. The agreement in his relationship, you see, had been "cool, as long as I'm involved". Except he was involved with several other women behind the back of his primary. When they broke, the quad broke, and it wasn't quite the same.

Shortly after that, I met someone. And my partner didn't ask. And I didn't tell. And everything seemed fine until I realized that I was, in fact, falling in love. I couldn't help it. I was wired that way. When my partner found out he made it abundantly clear that he was not okay with me essentially having two relationships at once. He was not okay with me being in love with this other person. I had to choose, and so I chose, opting to preserve what I had with my primary.

It wasn't that bad at first, even though our non-monogamy "agreements" ended up limiting me to monogamy now that the comfort of the quad was gone and I knew I couldn't enjoy casual sex. But there came a moment, and I'm shaky on the timeline here but it's not that relevant, when I'd been out with members of his family at a club and, drunk, started openly flirting with a woman. One particular family member was furious and not only accused me of trying to cheat on him but outed my bisexuality on Facebook before I'd come out to my family.

It was hard to be in the relationship past that point. As happy as my partner made me, his family was conventional, and we could only participate in our "alternative" lifestyle behind closed doors. I didn't want to feel like I had to hide or I wouldn't be accepted. I didn't want to live a lie. And if I was honest, I missed my other partner. I didn't want to choose. I wanted both.

DADT and DFIL work for some non-monogamous people. But I'm not just non-monogamous. I'm polyamorous. I don't want to pick up a random person in a bar and have a threesome. I don't want to be some couple's unicorn every now and then.

I, quite literally, love without limits. Polyamory allows me what I once considered impossible.

Coming Out | Stigma | Hookup Culture

So at this point, especially with the release of this article, I suppose I'm out. Fully, talked to my parents, posted a pic with my lover and metamour on IG - out. And I have to say...

It's fucking awesome.

There are still challenges. Stigma is a challenge. There are people who behave as though my relationship with my SO is purely sexual, because that's the only way they can understand it. There are people who assume that because we aren't exclusive, the relationship isn't serious. There are people who love me who have held my face in their hands and, with nothing but compassion, told me that we're not in love. Because our love doesn't look like what love is supposed to look like, so our love doesn't count. Happily in 2018 the East Village is one of the most LGBTQ friendly bubbles on Earth and doesn't scoff at same-sex relationships, but I often imagine that this must be what it was like to be openly gay back several decades ago. To an extent, every moment that I am in public and wearing my poly status proudly, I don't just get to have my relationships - I have to prove them. Prove that it's love. Prove that it's real. Answer invasive questions from well meaning people; questions that monogamous people in even the shittiest of relationships never get asked. Questions like: So do you all fuck each other? (Answer: It depends.)

And then there are the ramifications of hookup culture. The assumption from men who have no intentions beyond "having fun" with me that because I am in an open relationship, I am now an option for them to have sex with. They could never imagine anything serious with me, they tell me, knowing I was in a relationship with someone else. They'd have "no problem" having sex with me though. As though that's somehow supposed to appeal to me?

"Yes, please, use me!" Is that my line?

The presumption that polyamorous people are just public sexual property to be experienced at our expense to the benefit of whatever random person is interested is absolutely relentless. Polyamory translates to many loves; not many fucks. We aren't sluts. We just love more.

Sexism Again - The Playboy/Womanizer

Because I am a woman most of this has been focused on my experience, but I would be remiss if I didn't point out the challenges to being a polyamorous man as well. Particularly if you are a good looking person of either gender, the potential to be hyper-sexualized and objectified due to your orientation is greater. When I first met my current partner, for example, and subtly (or at least I hope it was subtle) inquired about his availability, I was told with unbridled enthusiasm that he was absolutely not a one woman man. He was a ladies man, I was told. The word womanizer was never said explicitly but was certainly implied. Consequently I ignored my attraction and glimmers of shared chemistry for years, but as always, the dam broke. Even after off and on became decidedly on - at this very moment, I suspect - there are still those, I'm sure, that believe that I am being taken advantage of in some way. That he, the ever active playboy, is going to chew me up and spit me out. That he's only in it for lewd sex acts, a presumption which ultimately objectifies both of us and is incredibly reductive of his character; completely dismissive of his capacity for genuine, human emotion. The depth of any of his relationships is casually trivialized in conversation while his ability to commit is simultaneously denied. I've heard his relationships described as fucking, going at it with, getting on with, and various other phrases that imply a purely sexual relationship but rarely ever as dating.

::dispels remainder of steam from ears::

Just saying. The knife cuts both ways, and the blood isn't pretty.

Visibility/Facebook

On the one hand, I get it, Facebook is not OKCupid (yet). On the other hand, monogamous people can easily select each other on Facebook and declare their relationships real. According to The Social Network, the relationship status option was the turning point that led to Facebook taking over life (literally) in the first place. Millennials don't consider relationships legitimate unless they're Facebook official. And yet currently Facebook only acknowledges monogamous relationships, or monogamish relationships, because even if you declare yourself in an "open relationship" with someone, you can only link one partner on the network, thereby perpetuating the idea that you can only have a real relationship with one person at a time - everything else is just...well...

This sort of brings us full circle. This long, angsty post, the personal anecdotes, have all been to make the point that it shouldn't have to be this damn hard. No one should have to go through life feeling like there is something inherently wrong with them, and that because of that thing that they have no control over, they will never be happy. People shouldn't be going to therapy for commitment and attachment issues and rehab for sex addiction when the only thing "wrong" with them is that they aren't like you (monogamous folk), and they don't know that any other way of life is possible. Monogamous people have models of healthy relationships to aspire to. Where are ours? Monogamous people have a road map to follow. Representation in the media. Relationship status on Facebook!

I think of all the pain that I've endured and inflicted trying desperately to squeeze myself into a box that I was never going to fit into, and I just wish I'd had more information earlier on. I think things would have gone differently if I and potential partners had been educated about other ways of love and life. Maybe then I would have been brave enough to embrace polyamory when I clearly wanted to practice it. Maybe if I'd had a name for it. Maybe if I wasn't convinced that it was bad, or wrong, or would detract from the value of my womanhood.

I can be a bit of an old fart sometimes and often fantasize about what it would have been like to live, say, in 1920 in Pigalle, before social media and smart phones and...um...penicillin? But if there is any advantage to being alive in 2018, it's the internet. The ease with which ideas can spread, forums can be joined, Youtube videos can be shared, and allies can be found.

That being said I fully intend to push this article with hashtags up the ass like #polyamory #polyamorypride #polyamorouswoman so that maybe, if there's someone sad or confused who has taken to Google, they won't have to stay sad or confused for long.

There is another way to live if monogamy doesn't work for you. You can find love that fits. Many loves, I hope.

#polylove
#lovemore

1 comment:

  1. Brother from another mother04 July, 2018

    :: waves back::

    ReplyDelete

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