Even among “people who consider themselves progressive […] there’s a deep resistance” to non-monogamy, says Kim TallBear, a professor at the University of Alberta, who specialises in decolonial sexualities. In the eight years she’s been polyamorous, she says little has changed in terms of the “stereotypes circulating” in society – often, that non-monogamy is a cover for selfishness, commitment-phobia and so-called sluttiness.
On the left, critiques of non-monogamy and polyamory are often framed in neoliberal terms. Choosing to have sex with multiple people, or to sustain multiple romantic relationships, some argue, mirrors individualistic, free-market ideology. But according to polyamorous educator Leanne Yau, versions of both non-monogamy and monogamy can be criticised as “relationship capitalism”.
Indeed, while both ways of relating can, of course, play into capitalist tropes, depending on how they are practised, criticism of non-monogamy must be considered in relation to the fact that we still live in a mono-normative society (one in which monogamy is considered to be both fundamental and natural), argues Yau. “It’s different from critiquing the status quo.”
Yau takes issue with the stereotype that non-monogamous people have shallower relationships, or that they tend to instrumentalise people. “You can commit to multiple people and accept them flaws and all,” she says. “While there are people who commodify others in non-monogamy, that also happens in monogamy.”
Non-monogamy can be a deeply political project.
It can be a privilege to dismiss non-monogamy as a flimsy or apolitical idea, argues TallBear. Queer people, for instance, she says, “don’t really get away with feeling like it’s irrelevant” because they don’t fit into heterosexual dictates to begin with. Race also plays a part in this. “I think many white people, especially, don’t have a sense that [non-monogamy can be] a deeply political project” for some people of colour, she says, beyond the idea that it is “vaguely pushing back against religious norms or restrictions.”
Even among leftists, it goes widely unacknowledged that monogamy not only has its roots in capitalism, but that it was violently enforced upon colonised peoples, says TallBear. Monogamous and non-monogamous people alike often “have no sense of the way that [monogamous settler] marriage and straightness was imposed on people in order to build the nation-state.”
Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah, author of The Sex Lives of African Women, explains that in Ghana, for example, British colonisers framed multiplicitous relationship structures – any alternative relational forms – as immoral, while institutionalised heterosexual monogamous marriage was seen as a civilised form of kinship. “A diversity of relationship types was lost, and a form of relationships that wasn’t native to us became what was regarded as the norm,” says Sekyiamah.
Decolonising relationships, then, argues TallBear, could mean retuning some of the resources colonialism stole by “dismantling the [structural, and therefore material] privilege, that is afforded to people by settler marriage, by hetero and homonormativity.”
It’s not just for the white middle class.
Despite the fact that institutionalised monogamy has its roots in capitalism and colonialism, mainstream, visible non-monogamy today is often considered the domain of the privileged. And indeed, white, middle-class people can dominate certain community spaces for non-monogamous people. “I remember going to the meet-ups and thinking ‘who are these people?’” recalls TallBear. “They weren’t really doing anything that was critical of the system, they definitely weren’t critical of marriage, they had all kinds of privileges and didn’t question it.” In this context, non-monogamy can be exclusionary and sit comfortably within the capitalist system.
There are reasons, too, why people of colour might be less likely to practise polyamory. TallBear recalls having conversations with Black and Indigenous men, who have approached her after talks to confess they feel unable to practise non-monogamy for fear of being “viewed as sexually deviant, as players, as cheaters, as not good fathers and providers”. It can also take time and energy to practise non-monogamy in a capitalist society in which monogamy is the dominant relationship style. Meanwhile, being monogamous entails certain social and financial advantages – such as marriage tax breaks – that not everyone can afford to forgo.
Despite this, non-monogamy is not the reserve of the privileged, and it is not apolitical. For many people, non-monogamy is less about personal freedom, or even having multiple romantic or sexual partners – certainly not about building a new ‘respectable’ dogma – and more about exploring a philosophy that can disrupt hierarchies and binaries from within the relational sphere.
Non-monogamy can be part of building queerer, more comradely and communal futures. When researching for her book, Sekyiamah found that the women she interviewed who “seemed to me to be the happiest women, the women with the best sex lives”, were those “not conforming to societal norms [but] trying to figure things out for themselves.”
This might mean challenging the primacy of monogamous coupledom – and the idea that one person should meet all, or most, of our needs. It could also mean finding more collective solutions to care, having “less possessive relationships”, including with children; or simply imagining “new forms of being”, explains Sekyiamah.
It’s time to move beyond the binary.
But while challenging the dominance of compulsory monogamy is important both politically and in terms of building more conscious relationships, it doesn’t mean we have to pit different relationship styles against each other.
Yau says she rarely encounters non-monogamous people who are “anti-monogamy” – those who are, she says, are often “newbies”, insecure in their new way of being in a mononormative world. More often, she finds, when monogamy does come into criticism, it isn’t the idea itself that is being challenged, but “either the institution of monogamy – compulsory monogamy – [or] the toxic parts of monogamy: the idea that jealousy equals love and care, or that love is sacrifice, or that your partner should be able to meet all of your needs, or that your one romantic partner should be the sole focus of your entire existence […] or that the relationship escalator is how you should find meaning in your life.”
Non-monogamous people are very rarely interested in replacing monogamy, but in imagining a society beyond compulsory monogamy. It isn’t all about romance and sex, either. In compulsory monogamy, romantic and sexual relationships are fetishised as “particularly special or natural”, when in fact they are just one kind among many, says TallBear. Asexual and aromantic polyamorists have taught her a lot about this, she says, through their capacity to “have multiple, caring, mutually sustainable” committed partnerships that might not include romantic love or sex at all.
The experience of asexual and aromantic people demonstrates that intimate, committed relationships are not defined by the presence of sex and romance. Indeed, if we sustain multiple committed relationships with people we love, in a sense, everyone is polyamorous. “I don’t cordon off sex or romance,” says TallBear; “every human being and non-human being is part of sets of relations […] this is why I don’t like the word single. I hope nobody is single, that’s a deeply lonely human being if they are.”
Relying on one person to meet all our needs can be unhealthy – and unsafe, too. “I think this is one reason couple-centrism is so dangerous,” says TallBear. “If you’re always reliant on that one person, you can’t leave […] that’s a very colonised relationship, where the financial structure is set up such that you cannot leave, or your very life could be at stake.”
We need to challenge compulsory monogamy.
In Yau’s view, intentional, “healthy monogamous relationships” are not so different from non-monogamous ones anyway. Whether or not you’re having sex with more than one person, you can sustain multiple close relationships. “In non-monogamy all you’re doing [differently],” she says, “is doing romantic or sexual things with more than one person.” No matter how we conduct our sexual and romantic lives, deconstructing the status quo allows us to be more intentional in the ways we relate in our lives more broadly, in order to build more expansive intimacies and stronger support networks. “You can adopt almost a polyamorous mindset while engaging in monogamy,” she says.
Our task, then, argues TallBear, is to “attack [compulsory monogamy] at a structural level,” tearing down the ways in which it continues to be rewarded in society at both a cultural and policy level.
In doing so, she suggests, we must grapple with the question of what kinds of relationships could best meet our needs for connection, care and community. “Because,” she says, “how we relate to one another – on a one-to-one level and on a collective level – is part of our politics.”
Sophie K Rosa is a freelance journalist. In addition to Novara Media, she writes for the Guardian, VICE, Open Democracy, CNN, Al Jazeera and BuzzFeed. Her book, provisionally titled Radical Intimacy, will be published by Pluto Books in 2023.