PODCAST: Why monogamy? Talking feminism and polyamory

Many have questioned the idea that committed, intimate, love relationships must necessarily be monogamous. Some see monogamy as a patriarchal invention that mainly benefits men and functions as a mechanism of control. In response to these questions and criticisms or, simply as an alternative that better suits their interests and desires, some people practice polygamy or ‘non-monogamy.’ But is non-monogamy necessarily ‘more’ feminist? Is monogamy necessarily contradictory to feminist ideals? Well, it’s not as simple as all that.

In this episode, Meghan Murphy speaks with Meg Barker, a senior lecturer in psychology at the Open University, a sex and relationship therapist, and the author of Rewriting the Rules: An Integrative Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships about some of the reasons people might enter into non-monogamous relationships as well as some of the challenges they might face. Later on the show we hear from Katie, an undergraduate student in her late twenties, who shares her experiences navigating a non-monogamous relationship as a feminist.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • MLM

    A great podcast. Two really good interviews and some very interesting perspectives.

    • Meghan Murphy

      I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  • Terre Spencer

    The trouble that I have with most “polyamory” types is that the term means “many loves” and most of them have never experienced even one real emotional attachment. The poly community is a haven and cover for the use and abuse of women. I have seen it up close and it is U G L Y.

    Getting a woman spokesperson for sleeping around is much like getting a woman pornographer to cover for the entire stinking mess and seems to magically . The emotional component of the human psyche is really given short-shrift and is reported entirely from a male perspective, a very limited emotional range.

    Until we as a culture embrace and really seek emotional development, we will never really know the best way to relate to others in all the ways that humans are capable of.

    Instead of discussing who and how many each person might sleep with, can we not focus on the quality of the relationships?

    • Meghan Murphy

      I agree with much of what you say but did you listen to the podcast? Meg Barker isn’t so much a ‘spokesperson for sleeping around’… She’s equally as critical of non-monogamy as she is of monogamy.

      You’re very right that polyamory can act as a cover for misogyny. As can monogamy…

      • Terre Spencer

        I am re-listening to it, and I hear that she is not exactly a proponent. The term “polyamory” disturbs me because it is yet another misnomer, right up there with “pro-life.”

        Women as a class do not have enough power to negotiate equally with men. Perhaps with other women, but not men. I started to type that but my danged parrot walks on my keyboard.

        The second woman talks about the coercion. Mercifully. But all-in-all, it is sleeping around.

        • Meghan Murphy

          I think the more commonly used term is ‘non-monogamy’, so your points about the term ‘polyamory’ are totally relevant, as is your point about unequal power. Certainly we aren’t just talking about hetero relationships when we talk about practicing non-monogamy.

          To me the point is that there is no magical solution (and Barker points this out as well) – sexism pops up in all kinds of relationships. I do think the idea of non-monogamy is an interesting one to explore. In practice, I have no experience.

          • Terre Spencer

            I cannot speak with any authority on woman-woman relationships. I have seen poly-pozzie groups and it is horrific, dark and full of gaslighting women at every turn. I have seen the coercion and the utter denial of emotional realities. I have seen near-torture exerted in the name of “expanding relationships.”

            Notice, please, that the non-monogamous woman is marrying and not opting to continue that lifestyle.

            Until we eliminate misogyny, non-monogamy will merely be another tool of oppression for women.

          • Meghan Murphy

            I should also point out that my purpose in exploring the idea of non-monogamy is not to advocate for polyamory, but rather to challenge dominant understandings of romantic/intimate, monogamous relationships. I don’t think that the practice of either one or the other is a necessary solution to anything.

  • Quesadilla

    Yeah I’ve mulled this over a lot and looked at the poly relationships. It’s hard enough to handle one sexual relationship as a woman. Handling more is asking far more of women than of men. I would not recommend it to anyone.

    Referencing what animals do to determine what is normal for humans is a bad idea. It smacks of evo psyche.

    So we live in a universe where two-ness is shown in the sexes. Does essential two-ness show itself again in pair-bonding? It looks to be so.

    -ogamy just references how many one *man* screws. It’s problematic definition is defined and understood from a male point of view. That’s it. Not really a feminist friendly concept. Plus it’s a false one. The -ogamy words implode on themselves. Can’t you be monogamous with Joe on Sunday and monogamous with Jane on Monday and so on? The concept is false.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Excellent points! My interest in non-monogamy (as a theory, not a practice) has always mostly just been about the idea that it strikes me as a little unrealistic that I will never be interested in someone else and that, somehow, making out with another person (not, like, secretly sneaking around and lying — i.e. cheating) should naturally destroy my primary relationship. That obviously doesn’t make for a necessarily ‘non-monogamous relationship’ but, for example, I know people who are in ‘monogamish’ relationships – so they have a primary partner but aren’t going to get accused of cheating because they hook up with other people every once in a while. I mostly just find the idea that you should be able to get all things from one person to be ridiculous. And this is how we are taught to understand monogamy and love relationships in our culture – we are supposed to ‘complete’ one another. I personally don’t have the energy for a non-monogamous relationship/more than one partner and seem to be more comfortable with monogamy than any other arrangement but am interested in exploring these ideas nonetheless. To be honest, my ideal relationship would be one where my male partner was monogamous but I still get to make out with others if I feel it necessary. So far no one’s agreed to it, but I’m going to keep at it.

    • LSS

      Quesadilla – I agree with you about this smacking of evo psych and needing to be vigilant of the almost always unequal power levels between polyamory participants. However, a year ago I had a similar revelation. Pure monagamy was no longer an option for me (in my hetero relationship). I simply had different sexual needs than my partner whom I love very much. I have navigated an open relationship for a year pretty successfully but I think ONLY because I did not reach out to the identified “poly” community here. I treat my external companionship like the dating before my partner; if I meet someone I have a serious spark with, I explore. I found that I have avoided a lot of the weirder aspects that I see written about/experienced this way.

      • I actually disagree that referencing animals in this context smacks of evo-psych (or that “smacking of evopsych” is, in itself, a valid criticism). We’re very different from animals in multiple crucial ways regarding our sexual and social behaviour, which is largely what evopsych aims to find out about. Many animals also do not have the complex societies that we do, and yet they have been key to our survival. So at best, I find reference to animals in this conversation irrelevant, not least because of the naturalistic fallacy.

        IIRC, extra-pair mating in ‘monogamous’ humans is at around 30%. But we’re certainly adapted for shared parental investment in some form, since our infants are far more altricial than those of almost every other animal. Whether this care was achieved by being distributed across small communities (probably more likely) or the result of monogamous coupling is an open question. But I think it’s also irrelevant for our purposes; whether it’s “natural” (ie, whether it’s been selected for as a species-typical trait) needn’t have any bearing on whether or not we still do it. We’re adapted for running long distances, but I sure as shit don’t bother doing that.

        In the comparatively rare instances in recorded history that there have been polyamorous set-ups it’s been a harem/mormon arrangement, so there is precedent for female oppression in polyamory as well as monogamy. I agree that these social and moral considerations are where the meat of this discussion lies.

      • Lela

        Apologies if this may be a change of subject, but why is “sex” constructed as a *need*? Why do we believe that we *need* to have constant access to the sexual bodies of other people in order to be whole? We are raised to take this concept for granted, while ignoring that it is clearly socially constructed.

  • Full disclosure: currently in a happy and monogamous heterosexual relationship with nowhere near enough social energy to seriously entertain the idea of polyamory.

    PIV criticism aside, it seems to me that the social context in which these relationships occur is what determines how problematic they are in feminist terms. Which is why we see many homosexual relationships that capitulate the the heterosexist dynamic despite, in principle, not needing to. It seems obvious that these problems will also manifest themselves in polyamorous set-ups.

    The problem with monogamous relationships reinforcing the status quo is that they are both supported by and sometimes *require* particular problematic social mechanisms that are part of women’s oppression (marriage, unpaid household labour, two wages to own home/have children) because society has been built around the heterosexist relationship model. So, simply by virtue of having a monogamous relationship, you are made to reinforce these social structures.

    If the social context were different in ideal-feminist-land, then polyamorous, homosexual and other relationship would not reinforce the heterosexist dynamic, and monogamy would also look very different – ie. would not rely on/reinforce these structures. The question then becomes how to change the social context such that relationships manifest themselves differently. It’s no small potatoes – even our economic model still assumes free labour and dual income for living somewhere, for example. I suppose a growing number of polyamorous people in society would drive society to change in accomodation, but I don’t think this has particularly been the case as gay visibility has increased for example. It’s far more likely that individual relationships will recreate the dominant dynamic. These kinds of problems make my head spin a little.

    As an aside, the same analysis can be applied to having children: having children has been a key part of women’s oppression, and to have children in our social context necessitates that you reinforce this structure with unpaid physical and emotional labour and economic disadvantage. The alternative is to not have children. It interests me that (as far as I know) nobody proposes that women who want children simply go without them because to do so would oblige the woman to reinforce problematic structural expectations in order to raise the child. (I wouldn’t make this suggestion either by any means).

  • sporenda

    Interesting discussion.

    Meghan says “I mostly just find the idea that you should be able to get all things from one person to be ridiculous”.

    I couldn’t agree more. The qualities you want from a father–reliability, stabiliy, etc–are not the ones you’ll be looking for in an interesting companion–culture, conversation, an interest for your hobbies–which are different from the ones you’d like to find in a lover.
    Most of my companions were average to mediocre in bed, and my best lovers were guys that I had no interest bringing into my life.

    Recently, I got involved with a decent, cultured, well educated man but he was sexually inept. I terminated the sexual relationship quickly and kept him as a friend. And resumed my on/off affair with a younger, better looking man who is very attentive to my pleasure.

    Some posts seem to consider that sleeping around is harmful to women, and that monogamy is safer forthem.
    I don’t agree. Sleeping around can be dammaging–or not, it all depends on the rules you follow, what you expect from it–if you expect to find emotional committment that way, you are likely to be disappointed. If you are in it just for fun, and are careful, it can be much less destructive than monogamy.
    In fact, monogamous relationships have caused far more dammage in my life than sleeping around.

    To me, monogamy is a jail : even if domestic work is shared equally–it never is–, the fact that sex is more or less compulsory has one result: that you feel obligated to have sex even when you don’t want to.
    All women in monogamous relationships have done that, and I find it unacceptable, unbearable: self inflicted rape for the sake of emotional security.

    This is the cause of the so called frigidity of women, a theme that was popular in the 50s/60s: women forsake sexual satisfaction for emotional and/or financial security, they almost never chose a partner purely for sexual reasons, something men do all the time.
    Plus the fact that for a long time, sex meant penetration, whereas most women cannot reach orgasm that way.

    I gave up monogamy a long time ago because I can’t stand having sex with a man I no longer desire, and monogamous relationships almost always end up that way. It’s not that I am into polyamori: I just have different men in my life because I share different things with them, and I don’t mind if they do the same.

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  • PlayMistyForMe

    So glad to find this podcast. I somehow have the feeling that polyamory don’t get enough awareness. Polyamoryphobia it’s forced upon us as a controlling tool. It makes me really, sad.