by Flavian Mèche and Clara Schöpfel
“ It must be tough, you really are courageous”
“I could never do it, but I have so much respect for those who can”
“It is not normal, you just do not love your partner”
These are some of the assumptions you might hear when you mention that you are in a non-monogamous relationship. I realised that monogamy is a truism that I never really questioned during my evolution in society. Given my own journey of delving into alternative concepts of monogamy, I want to invite you to explore the different forms and facets of relationships. In this article, the first in a series of two, I will focus on deconstructing monogamy not by trying to convince but to question one of the most anchored concepts policing our social relationships. In this piece I will give key concepts to explore ethical non-monogamy.
*As our article aims at offering an alternative to cisheteronormative monogamy, when the terms “men” and “women” are used, we refer to cisgender (wo)men.
Love, Romance & Sex Fallacy:
In our monogamously-socialised society, love, romance and sex seem to be inextricably linked and impossible to sustain without each other. There is no doubt that the components of romance and sex play a crucial role in classic couple relationships and seem to differentiate them from other loving connections in our lives. Because we are capable of such different forms of affection, including love, I believe it is important to question the inseparability and exclusivity of love, romance and sex.
Non-monogamy is often reduced to sex, i.e. understood as the opportunity to have sex with as many people as possible. Accusations are then commonly made such as “you just want to have fun and you’re not ready to commit.” However, the experiences of people in non-monogamous relationships paint a different picture, especially in the polyamorous style of relationship. The emotional, trusting and loving affection for each other, in a polyamorous relationship, are paramount. Breaking up exclusivity requires strong trust, open communication, mutual respect and a close connection to one’s own feelings and desires.
I do not mean that monogamous relationships cannot be a happy way of being together, nor that non-monogamous forms are the ‘better’ alternative. Rather, I would like to open the door to non-monogamy as an option that can enrich our attitude to love, romance and sex. This journey includes questioning the belief that “if you’re really in love, you will automatically lose all interest in others; thus, if you’re having sexual or romantic feelings towards anyone but your primary partner, you’re not really in love”.
Romantic love is often depicted as a finite resource that is only sufficient for one partner. Ironically, we (unconsciously) accept that it is possible to love several people equally at the same time. For example, no one would probably ask parents to place their children in a hierarchy of affection. So why is it so much more difficult for us to imagine that we can love more than one person romantically? Maybe it is because time, energy and money are however finite and, if our love could not be quantified, the amount of resources we devote in our relationships may be sources of tension and hierarchisation. However, this is also proper to monogamy.
The One True Love (OTL) fallacy
We know the OTL story from countless romcoms in which the ‘Prince Charming’ and his bride-to-be pass through life that is initially incomplete but then, after overcoming a few obstacles, get together and find their guaranteed ‘happily-ever-after’. It’s quite telling that these films always end when relationships in real life are just getting started. Fuelled by its representation in pop culture, the narrative of OTL dominates our understanding of happiness, future and, ultimately, our self-esteem. It creates the expectation that there is one human being on this planet who will fulfill all our desires and that only with this one person could we be truly happy and therefore it is our task not to rest until we have found this unicorn.
This pressure of expectation provokes disappointment on all sides. Women experience this pressure particularly strongly due to persistent societal role models that define their success in finding and keeping the one man. Fuelled by commercialism, which culminates bizarrely on Valentine’s Day, we are told we are incomplete and a failure without the OTL. This fairytale can prevent us from getting invested in relationships that do not immediately match the perfect vision that has been preconceived.
By imagining happiness only with the OTL, we give up autonomy. To put it bluntly, by believing in the idea of OTL, we place our lives in the ‘hands of fate’. We instead “each have the responsibility of living our own lives, determining our individual needs, and arranging to get those needs met. We cannot live through a partner, nor can we assume that just because we have a lover, all our needs should automatically be satisfied.” Love, as I understand, is, on the contrary, experienced from a position of self-empowerment, and a partnership means actively choosing to be with the other person(s) again and again.
The Virginity, Purity and Respectability Fallacy
I believe much of the resistance to non-monogamy has one foot in the gendered double standard around the research of erotic pleasure, and the other in the myth and misogyny around the concept of virginity and purity.
Female bodies are expected to live up to the impossible double standard of staying pure and sexual at the same time. They are shamed when they do not subscribe to male-gaze-y sexual expectation andif they live a free sexual life. This double standard to behave, adhere to the nurturing and respectable virtues of a mother and the possess the debrided sexuality of a pornstar is a powerful instrument to define and control female sexuality.
I believe that the exercise of defining virginity is not philosophical, but tangible policing and control of bodies. Depending on their positionalities, some women are denied the notion of purity. I am thinking here about the fetishization and hypersexualisation of race, body type, sexual orientation or other intersectional identities, that are subjected to objectification, and therefore “do not deserve purity”. When in the presence of an apparatus of control, it is important to observe who does the controlling and who benefits from it. In the case of virginity, I’ll let each of us draw their own conclusion.
On the one hand, there is the idea that because they are pictured as much more sexual than women, and the desire for sex is understood as a guarantee of masculinity, non-monogamy would only benefit men. On the other hand, the classic comment that “a real man would never share his woman” is not only rooted in toxic masculinity and probably built on insecurity, but also fetishes bisexuality, as it often comes hand in hand with “but I would be okay if she wants to explore with other girls”. Both assumptions are erroneous as ethical non-monogamy is built first and foremost on trust and mutual support and would not be ethical if unilateral, or if one feels pressured into it.
I would like to conclude this first part with a historical contextualisation and reflection on the cementing of monogamous relationships as the norm. Since the settling-down of previously nomadic peoples, property was exclusively attributed to men depriving women of the possibility to be autonomous and self-reliant. Women were thus forced into dependence on men, who also sought to control the resource of sex. With the concept of the monogamous relationship which prevented women from changing their sexual partner, competition among men was contained and a sexual partner was almost guaranteed to them.
The institution in which the monogamous relationship of two was cemented is marriage. More pointedly, marriage can be understood as the ultimate expression of capitalism in two ways: first, women who were themselves penniless were treated as property, commodified in bride’s price passed from father to husband; and second, marrying, as socially required, a virgin was a way of ensuring that only one’s offspring benefited from inheritance. Although it originated as an instrument of power and oppression under coercion, it continues to carry positive connotations, especially among women.
In this way, a system that is essentially repressive is reinterpreted positively to this day, and a tool that arose from men’s desire for control is transfigured into a “fulfilled existence”. The monogamous heterosexual marriage narrative, which is based on cultural conditioning, economic hardship and psychological-emotional needs, presents itself as the only viable way of life, reinforced by the ostracism of alternative conceptions.
I do not mean to brand either the monogamous relationship or marriage as “evil” or “bad”. My aim is rather to show that they are neither the only legitimate model nor a guarantee for satisfied relationships, let alone a fulfilling sex life. If you’ve stayed with me so far, I’d first like to thank you for your attention and hope you’ll also be interested in the second part, which will explore non-monogamy deeper.
- Despentes, Virginie (2006). “King Kong Théorie. Paris: Grasset.”
- Dlf Nova. Eine Stunde Liebe (2021) “Lebenslange Exklusivität – Das sagt die Biologie zur Monogamie” https://www.deutschlandfunknova.de/beitrag/monogamie-ist-der-mensch-von-natur-aus-monogam
- Easton, Dossie and Hardy, Janet (1997) “The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures”
- Melkor-Kadior, Bebe (2020). “Balance ton corps. La Musardine Eds.”
- PULS. Im Namen der Hose (2021) “Liebe zu dritt: Kann ich zwei Menschen lieben?”
- Schechter, Therese (2013). “How to lose your virginity: Myths & Misogyny Around a Rite of Passage. Women make movies.”
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