Psychologist Sandy Peace discusses how polyamory can check male privilege while fostering open and honest communication among partners.
What straight or bi guy hasn’t fantasized about bedding two women at a time? Or at least having two lovers? In a heteronormative, monogamous world, this fantasy is out of reach, except in porn. The only real-life alternative is cheating. If you value honesty and fidelity in your relationships, getting your desire for multiple lovers met this way leads to feeling guilty. And the betrayal of trust your partner experiences when you do tell them (or they find out) results in a rupture in the relationship that may lead to separation.
In the world of polyamory, the fantasy of multiple partners is a reality. Polyamory, literally “many loves” (“poly” is Greek for “many”, and “amory” is Latin for “love), is “the practice of engaging in multiple sexual [loving] relationships with the knowledge and consent of all partners concerned.” Sounds great, right!?! Hell yes!…And there are a lot of barriers set up by the dominant culture’s patriarchal, gendered relationship structure that make it difficult to implement.
First, let’s acknowledge that monogamy equals ownership. I am yours, you are mine, ‘till death do us part. Add in patriarchy: women are the property of men. For progressive men, this sounds old-fashioned. So let’s examine the double standard men and women have around expressing sexuality and having sex. Men can, and are expected to, get down at any time with as many people as possible. They are expected to flaunt their sexual exploits, actively solicit sex, and have cultural permission to bed multiple people – or keep a mistress. Modern women find themselves encouraged to live by the adage “a lady on the streets, a freak between the sheets.” Women are “good girls” and not allowed to express sexual desire directly. As such, men are put in control of women’s sexual expression with the “I know you want it” assumption that takes away a woman’s ability to initiate sex (even if men want her to), having sex for the man’s sake, and too often results in sexual boundary crossings. In this high context mating game, so many unspoken culturally socialized stereotypes are at play, that it’s hard to sort out what we really want. Add to that the reliance of covert communication, rules, and behaviors to get our needs met (i.e. “the dating game”) and the potential for both men and women to be hurt greatly increases.
Sandy Peace discusses polyamorous relationships.
Polyamory takes away much of the guesswork by equalizing the sexual playing field where women and men are striving for more equality in relationships. The polyamory movement is largely led by bisexual women. (Not that patriarchy doesn’t infiltrate the system via the eroticism of “hot bi babes” and the reliance on women to carry the bulk of the “emotional burden” in relationships with men.) Within polyamory there is permission to talk about sexual/emotional desires and boundaries within the context of multiple relationships. “How will this new relationship affect my existing ones?” “Do I have time for another relationship?” “How do we want to define this relationship? (i.e. friends with benefits, partners, once a year lover?) What kind of sex do we want to have? These are common conversations…and there are no set answers.
This leads to another challenge: talking deeply with partners about feelings, needs, and relationship agreements. Not just with one partner, with several. One of my male research participants
explained it this way: “Some of my male friends were like, ‘Yay! You get two women!’ And I’m like, ‘Trust me. There are days when I would rather just date lots of girls because it’s simpler.’ …But that’s not what I am going for though. I want a relationship that is going to be long and strong and lasting. So, working out the dynamics of that when there are two women in your life can be extremely challenging, and somewhat dramatic, so there is a fair amount of drama regarding my decisions.”
I think you’re getting the idea that practicing polyamory takes masterful communication skills. In the realm of communication and emotional empathy, women are often socialized to succeed at this, and men might find themselves in the dark. Rest assured, these are not (necessarily) genetic predispositions. Communication and empathy are also learned behaviors, and people of all genders can be highly successful at it with some concerted effort.
In the framework of high context monogamous assumptions, some people worry that all this honesty and explicit discussion kills the mystery and desire of sex. However, like taking time to put on a condom can “kill the moment,” so too can putting on a condom help you relax and enjoy sex without the worry of STI’s or pregnancy. Plus, there are sexy ways to put on a condom, just as there are sexy ways of talking about sexual desire and limits.
One of the unexpected pitfalls for men in polyamory is that their female partners often like it and are highly successful at it, while they are sitting home alone. Here’s the scenario: a man in a monogamous relationship with a woman wants to have multiple sexual partners. After some cajoling and research, his partner consents to trying it. He is sooooo excited about the possibility of bedding two women that he can barely keep his pants on. They go to a social gathering, or try online dating, and meet other poly people. She finds a lover before he does, her initial reluctance melts away, and soon she’s happily fucking several people and organizing potlucks. Meanwhile, he’s struggling to find a date and is sitting home lonely and dejected while she’s out having fun, wondering why the hell he ever convinced her to try this in the first place. Guys, let’s face it…it’s a lot more emotionally safe when you’re the only available dick around. The underlying problem is not that your woman is fucking other people, it’s that the power patriarchy and monogamy granted you to control access to her sexuality is gone. She’s in control of it now. And that’s a phenomenon patriarchy didn’t prepare you for – that’s the price of privilege.
Once you get past this initial loss of privilege, and get used to having a female partner empowered to get her sexual needs met, you may find that the benefits of direct communication and ability to connect with others sexually in an open and honest way, far outweigh “being in control” of the sexual situation. According to the laws of physics, a body in motion stays in motion. So too with sex – the more and better sex you get, the more you want and give. For many formerly monogamous couples, polyamory helps re-energize a stagnant love life sexually and emotionally. And who doesn’t want that?