I am above all a writer but secondarily an academic and activist (althought lately I’m thinking the latter is always there when I’m writing). As such, I have experience with academics and activists in this country and I can tell you one thing we’re good at: diagnosing and picking apart cases of prejudice, privilege, and power relations when it comes to well-established versions of them: racism, heterocentrism, sexism, ablism, etc. (This is true for my field of , at least. I’ve known plenty of clueless Political Science and Science professors in this arena).
I can also tell you one thing we’re bad at: doing the same thing with not so well-established versions of them. We were good at deconstructing racism far before we were good at homophobia. We were good at deconstructing classism far before we got any good at sexism. Where is one field where we are behind? Nonmonogamy. To scholars and activists of 2050, we’re going to look as stupid as the homophobes of the 1950s look to us now. We don’t even have to try hard anymore to acknowledge the rights of same-sex couples, but the rights of same-sex triples or quads, let alone heterosexual ones? Rarely.
Let me give you an example from the conference I just returned from. The conference theme was revolution, and a very smart professor was lecturing about revolution in the Middle East. As a committed revolutionary myself, I found her entire talk to be politically and intellectually resonant with my own commitments. She challenged Western pundits who give too much credit to social media for what the people themselves are doing, fetishizing western-made (and profited-from) technology. She talked interesting strategies for teaching revolution to liberal-democratic, apathetic spoiled U.S.American students. She talked of the importance of women to the revolution, and the necessity of ending sexist judgments about the way female protestors dress or comport themselves if the revolution is to be successful.
Then she said something so jarringly counterrevolutionary to me I sat blinking for minutes. In a list of Bad Things Men and Politicians Do in the region, she cited a political official in Libya stating that he intends to make polygamy not illegal. Apparently we were supposed to think that was horrible. In my book making any form of marriage not illegal is a good thing, as long as they are adults. I said so. What was the response in the room full of academics and people interested in revolution? Indigance at me. One said: “You have to understand that since it’s not equal, and a women can’t have multiple spouses, it’s an institution of sexist repression.” “Then make it equal,” I said. “Don’t outlaw half of our rights because the other half has yet to catch up.” Also, in a room full of people trained to dissect words carefully no one seemed to notice the official had said he wanted to make it not illegal, and were talking as if he had said: “everyone must be polygamous”. When scholars are that sloppy you know they are thinking only with their prejudices. The professor herself complicated her original statement by telling me something downright bigoted “no woman wants to share her partner with someone else.” I was astounded that such an ignorant and bigoted statement towards the millions of polygamous and polyamorous people in the world was met with no resistance. Imagine if someone had said “no woman wants another woman for a partner”. Astounding.
Of course there are deeper problems here, such as the commitment to using the law to deal with moral judgments about people’s private lives. It’s amazing how often this society thinks we can just outlaw whatever we don’t agree with in the household, from gay marriage to plural marriage to drug use to prostitution, despite overwhelming evidence that criminalization never works to curb practices human beings historically want and always will want. Polygamy (which means multiple spouses, be they male or female), and to a lesser degree polyamory, have a massive presence throughout the history of humankind. Some argue there have been more poly people on the planet than monogamous. But in a room full of fifty scholars on this pleasant spring day in Ann Arbor most of them embarrassed themselves to future generations of scholars and activists, in addition to offending at least three poly people in the room I later spoke with. Another of these deeper problems is the same old reformist ‘art of the possible’, whereby true liberation seems too difficult so we vehemently get behind mezzo-liberation or even repression (as long as its equal repression for all!). Thus since it seems so impossible to convince countries in that region to allow women to have multiple spouses or partners as well, let’s just outlaw poly altogether. What a visionary approach to human rights.
Let nonmonogamy be a warning and let us ask ourselves—where else are we 30 years behind other struggles? Where else do we arrogantly, as U.S.Americans tend to do, ask the law to enforce our bigotry?