Category Archives: relationships
Time for another rant about sexual and romantic scripts! Today’s pet peeve is how we talk about love, both finding and having it. Scripts on love are just chock full of mixed messages, and a lot of them are obnoxiously gendered.
We act like love, specifically romantic love, is the be-all and end-all for happiness. Being in love makes you complete and whole. Though these days we do caution folks to find their own happiness before seeking it in others, we still tend to consider romantic relationships part of a healthy life course. But at the same time, we often deem looking for love as almost pathological. People, particularly women, who are struggling to find romance are looked down upon, studied to within an inch of their life (what’s the Tinder trend of this week?) and hounded with advice. So you need love to be whole, but if you engage in a reasonable search for it, you’re suddenly just desperate?
It’s another example of how no one can win when following these scripts. Presumably, we’re supposed to just magically come upon our perfect mate, without emotional work or time spent in the dating pool. Spend too long looking and your social capital drops, and god forbid you’re aromantic or asexual and not interested in a partner. And this pressure falls disproportionately on women, with all the marketing and media focusing on how a woman has to be loved to feel happy and valued but very little focused on actively knowing how to love. Instead of hyperfocusing on the tactics of search, what if we turned this energy towards skills inside of a relationship, or how to figure out what it is you want, or how to identify when you’re loved by someone who isn’t healthy for you? Food for thought.
I was just listening to the most recent episode of the Sexplanations podcast with Dr. Lindsey Doe, where she was joined by another favorite Youtuber of mine, Ash Hardell, to talk about asexuality. Though asexuality is ostensibly the theme of the show, they talk a lot about attraction in general, and different types of attraction–sexual, romantic, platonic, sensual, aesthetic, and alterous. It’s in the discussion of alterous attraction (something between platonic and romantic, such as a queerplatonic relationship), that something comes up that struck me as a bit more monoganormative and heteronormative than Dr. Doe’s usual default, so I thought I’d address it here.
I may be biased, but I think polyamory and demisexuality go really well together. To review, a demisexual person is someone who only experiences sexual attraction after getting to know someone very well first. Within these close relationships, a demisexual person might experience strong or frequent sexual attraction, or might experience weak or occasional attraction. Personally, I don’t experience sexual attraction with everyone I become close with, or every romantic partner, but do experience it with some people (there is no clear pattern).
Given this, I find polyamory to be super, super handy. For there to be any chance at sexual attraction, I kind of have to spend some time pursuing someone, get to know them in a deep intimate way, and even then I might end up in a great relationship where I don’t experience sexual attraction. This might frustrate the hell out of a monogamous partner, if being found sexually attractive is an important part of a relationship for that person. But being poly, my partners can easily seek that attraction elsewhere if it doesn’t happen for me. It also means that the variable and occasional nature of my desire isn’t a roadblock. I have and have had partners who really like frequent sex and that’s not a problem when they can simply get it elsewhere.
This isn’t to say that two people can’t be in a monogamous relationship when only one is sexually attracted to the other. Of course there are creative ways to work around this, and some allosexual folks wouldn’t be bothered by one-sided attraction, especially if it doesn’t affect sexual activity. But in my experience, polyamory takes a lot of these questions out of the picture.
I guess it’s no surprise that my expectations for friendships in my thirties are different from what they were in my teens. But in thinking about how my friendship norms have changed over time, I notice some patterns that might have been alleviated by better education around friendship at a young age — a kind of relationship that’s prioritized much less than romantic relationships in the collective imagination, but is actually more important for many people.
When I was a kid, my primary models for friendship were my mom’s two best friends–one woman she’d known since high school, and another she met while pregnant with me. This idea of close, lifelong friends stuck with me and was definitely an aspiration. As a kid, I was always looking for a “best friend,” and fantasized about growing up and attending college together. I was desperate enough for a BFF that my closest friendships tended to have a cost, either of manipulation and borderline abusiveness in the friends who took advantage of that need, or of a neediness that I found overwhelming in friends who were just as desperate.
People in meatspace keep looking at me funny when I use the term “monoganormativity,” so I guess it’s time to talk about it.
For a long time, I’ve noticed similarities between queerness and polyamory when it comes to the trajectory of each movement and the focus on more normative versions of a given identity. In queer-land, this is the tendency of large LG(B)((T)) organizations to focus on same-sex marriage, adoption, and other priorities and messaging that support a “just like you” framework. We call these tactics, as well as relationships that default to assumptions about how relationships work that come from the straight world, “heteronormative.” Monoganormativity is the same idea, just a corollary that springs up in poly-land.
monoganormativity: culture, practices, and behaviors that mimic those considered “normal” among monogamous people within the context of a polyamorous culture or relationship.
For example, when the default focus in conversations around polyamory is jealousy or relationship hierarchy, I consider that focus monoganormative because it’s aligned with the monogamous culture norm that partners should be jealous of and need to be more important than others, despite the fact that the context is polyamory. I’d also call the tendency of a lot of (but certainly not all) newly poly folks to focus on one couple as a foundation and write relationship rules springing from this baseline, rather than rethinking possible relationship styles, monoganormative–and the same goes for media coverage that focuses only on triads and couple-plus structures when discussing polyamory.
This isn’t intended to be an indictment. Most of us grow up in a context where monogamy is the norm. Even typing “monogamous culture” felt funny to me, probably because like white culture, it’s unnamed and pervasive. No one ever asks “when did you decide to practice monogamy?” just like no one ever asks “when did you realize you were straight?” It takes time to defeat internalized monoganormativity, no matter how proudly poly you are. I’ve heard so many folks who practice radical, non-hierarchical poly express guilt when they realize they “just want to be the most important!” in a situation, despite their fundamental commitment to egalitarianism.
So I don’t want to condem anyone who feels these feelings (myself included), but I do want to suggest an awareness of monoganormativity both in culture and in how we conduct intimate relationships. It’s okay to be jealous, it’s okay to practice consensual relationship hierarchy, it’s okay to have moments when you want to be the only one. It’s also okay to be monogamous. Let’s just stop pretending that monoganormativity doesn’t exist.
I saw this button on Pinterest a little while ago, and the slogan struck me. Beyond obvious queer cutesiness, I started thinking about what it might actually mean. “Love is a many gendered thing.”
Though it sounds flip, the slogan really resonates with me, because it reflects the way I look at gender. I don’t ignore gender in people I’m attracted to, but at the same time I don’t tend to lump attractions by gender, or at least not by gender alone. My tendency is to create more complex categories–“geeky fannish femmes,” “andro punk trans folks,” “playful trans women with awesome shoes,” “fat femmes that rock the retro chic look.”
Generally, we’re expected to group the people we love into gender clusters, and even in the case of bisexuals or pansexuals, I think there’s some expectation that your “type” will depend on the gender you’re thinking of at the moment. When we talk about multiple genders, or gender being less important, then it becomes this big incoherent blob of “gender has no meaning” or “we can transcend gender.” But I think that individual genders do have meaning, insofar as they shape the people that claim them. And I think that an individual’s gender experience can be sexy, and sometimes I fall in love with the way a particular person experiences their gender.
What do you think?
In the past few years, I’ve noticed a lot of blogs and articles talking about 21st century dating, particularly focused on the qualms of feminist heterosexual females. Conservative women bemoan feminism and the death of the traditional relationship while feminists offer alternative dating models and insist that dating isn’t dead. Both of these sides, however, tend to dismiss queer women and queer people generally by specifying that their arguments apply to heterosexual dating only.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’d like to examine some of these messages and ask whether queer daters can glean anything from them–or if not, what are some feminism-based dating and relationship messages that do apply to queers?
Feminist Messages on Heterosexual Dating
From lingerie, to expensive getaways, to candy to cars, flowers, all of these things work together to create a specific romantic experience that has almost replaced the actual authentic experience. Like when someone gets engaged, the first thing you ask them is to see their ring. Everyone says that, “can I see the ring.” It’s become this materialistic marker of progression in your relationship as opposed to this more special moment.
–Samhita Mukhopadhyay, interviewed on her book Outdated
Point being, it’s awfully easy to look at other feminist women and think that they are making obviously terrible choices with their love lives; it is much harder to actually find someone who meets all the requirements of a feminist litmus test, and is single and is someone you’re attracted to and is also attacted to you and is someone who you want to discuss things other than feminism with and is in the right place at the right time. So if you want a relationship — and I think that most people really do want relationships — you have to be able to put some things aside. Where and how you put your feminism aside is, for me, significantly harder than he likes cats and I’m more of a dog person.
–Jill Filipovich on dating while feminist
But while my dating quantity has gone down as I identified as a feminist, the quality of dating has gone way, way up. If I never again talked to most of the guys I slept with before I was 24, I would not much be bothered. But the guys I’ve met and loved and screwed since will, I hope, remain my friends to some degree or another.
–Andrea Grimes at Heartless Doll
When I first meet someone, and decide that I adore them, I don’t really consider their politics at first. And while I usually mention that I’m a feminist, I do it in a flirtatious way—“yeah, I’m a feminist. A hardcore one.” . . . I don’t mind being anyone’s challenge, not initially, probably because I believe that initial attraction is always pretty superficial. I don’t even care if a guy offends me at first, because I’ll argue with him, and maybe he’ll argue back, and maybe we’ll discover that we actually have more in common than we realize, or else even less in common than previously thought. I’ve made my peace with the fact that “feminist” tends to be a loaded term, and when it provokes a reaction, I just deal with it, and move on. I don’t even think about it much anymore. It’s a little like being on autopilot.
Whenever I sacrifice my feminism for a man, I do it while remembering that it’s feminism that allows me that choice in the first place.
–Natalia Antonova on falling in and out of love while feminist
What happens to me that drives me up a tree is this: The guys who respond to me and are like, ‘You’re awesome. You’re kind of a hellcat.” They think it’s cool and kind of bad-ass that I’m outspoken and passionate about things. They think that’s really hot. They’re into it. But then when that outspokenness gets applied back to them, it’s suddenly game-over. You know the idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl? She’s light, and quirky, and she has no inner life of her own, and just there to serve our hero’s development and erotic interests. I sort of feel that I get cast in these dudes’ narratives as the Hellcat Dream Girl, there to prove how bad-ass they are because they’re dating such a bad-ass woman. They think it’s cute or sexy. But when I use that smart, outspoken bad-assery to challenge their own perspectives, it’s suddenly not sexy at all. It happens when they say something that I disagree with, and I act like a person and not someone that is playing out their particular fantasies.
It’s happened to me a million times . . . they want it as a trophy. “Hey, look at my bad-ass girl.” They don’t want to deal with me as a person. It follows this pattern where it usually comes from a person who seeks me out. They try to seduce me. They think I would be an accomplishment to conquer or something. They seek me out and try to get me interested in them, and then I am, and then they flee. . . . I feel like the same thing happened with the guy I dated for two years. He liked the idea of being a guy who would be with someone like me, but ultimately it turned out that he wanted someone who wouldn’t challenge him as much, a person who was easier and quicker to sweep away. I got evidence of that when, within three months of breaking up with me, he was dating a 23 year old who lists her political views on Facebook as “moderate.”
–Jaclyn Friedman on Fucking While Feminist
So What About the Queers?
As I was reminded in a recent panel on heteronormativity in pop culture, you don’t have to be heterosexual to be heteronormative. While the questions about who pays for dinner and the fear of the strong woman don’t necessarily come up as much in queer dating, feminist principles of negotiation, communication, consent, and shaking up power relations can certainly be applied to queer dating.
It’s not uncommon for a modern queer relationship to start or continue more-or-less along the lines established by heteronormative pop culture. When queer characters do show up on TV, they’re often following those same dating scripts. If we want to truly queer the dating experience, we can do so with ideas borrowed from feminism.
Mukhopadhyay’s point about the “romantic-industrial complex” is a particularly good one, as queers are by no mean immune. In fact, a huge complex has sprung up around queer dating, offering queer-focused jewelery, all manner of rainbow paraphernalia, gay travel packages, gay hotel stays, you name it. A queer Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to completely espouse romance, but it might not be a bad idea to wake up to the way the romance industry tries to exploit us like everyone else. There are certainly better ways to express our love for our partners, and for our communities.
Several of these quotations focus on the difficulty of identifying as a feminist while dating men–when to disclose and whether to do so, whether feminists will be seen as a dating challenge, whether it’s worth it to compromise on feminist ideals. Of course, these fears are largely based on the model of feminist woman, reluctant man, and theoretically don’t apply to queer dating. I would argue that they can, certainly, but the difficulty in a queer relationship is less likely to be convincing a partner that it’s okay for you to be a strong person or a feminist and more likely to come down to internalized gender norms or heteronormative patterns.
Many of us are socialized into queer communities to fit a particular type, so while female strength isn’t necessarily seen as a bad thing, there are examples of queer partners seeming to “go against type.” Butch/femme may not be so prevalent as it was in the 1950s, but there is a theme of types, from lipstick lesbians to masculine gay men to androgynous genderqueers. If we tend to be perceived as a particular type, part of the dating challenge may be expressing oneself as more than meets the eye, or avoiding being dating-typecast.
I particularly like Friedman’s commentary on the Hellcat Dream Girl, because I do think this kind of behavior is fairly common in queer communities. There’s a tendency to fetishize, whether it’s beefy gay male gym rats, young punky androgynes, or tough femmes. If we fall into a type that’s often fetishized in our communities, then we may find ourselves trying to live up to it. If we do not, the queer dating scene may be more like a nightmare.
What these applications of feminist messages to queer dating seem to boil down to is that whether heterosexual or not, heternormativity isn’t doing anyone favors. The dating scripts we learn both from traditional stories and from more modern twists are flawed and inflexible. They rely on relatively rigid gender norms or at the very least, gendered tropes. They de-emphasize communication and negotiation, and over-emphasize the idea of a sought-after character, an experience for which the rules are already written and everyone knows their parts.
Anyone who’s ever had good sex can tell you that this cultural framework is heading for a landslide, big time.
So how do we make queer sex and dating a positive experience, feminist-style?
Know thyself. Self-care is a hot topic in the feminist blogosphere lately, but self-care isn’t all about lotion and massages and masturbation. It’s also about taking time with yourself to ask some tough questions. The more you know, the more honest and comfortable you’ll be in conversation, whether looking for a hookup or a long-term relationship.
Talk that talk to me all night. I can’t resist a Rihanna lyric, but it’s good advice. Talk when you meet, talk when you’re considering hooking up, talk in bed, talk about your relationship. Anti-feminists like to make talk sound unromantic, boring, and repetitive, but a silent relationship is almost never a good thing. When we’re silent, we operate on assumptions. There’s no way of knowing if those assumptions align, and we can save ourselves many embarrassing moments and uncomfortable encounters by verbalizing what we want, need, and prefer.
Enthusiastic consent. This is another one that has a lot of naysayers. “Oh my God, how unsexy! You have to ask every time you touch someone?” Yes, but that can in fact be pretty hot. It doesn’t have to be a big deal–if you don’t want a litany of questions, you can talk about your interests and limits upfront. Or you can simply ask “is it okay if I touch you here?” Either way, asking for consent gives you a chance to hear out any uncertain or negative cues and be a supportive partner if it’s time to take a break or switch gears.
When I started out with polyamory, I didn’t really feel comfortable with the idea of “open.” Part of that was that it seemed rather chaotic and haphazard. I didn’t think that there was any reason to limit romantic relationships to just one, but the word “open” gave me a mental picture of extreme promiscuity and I think especially, a lack of control.
Without really thinking about it, though, I’ve ended up in an open, poly situation and I’m happy with that. It was mostly accidental, because I had no interest in setting rules about sex and dating, outside of the important safer sex questions, of course. I still think of myself primarily as a “polyamorous person,” even though I’m only with one person right now, because polyamory has become a lens through which I view the world, rather than a simple way of describing what’s going on in my love life.
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I haven’t been entirely closeted about this. I’ve supported polyamory theoretically, spoken about it publicly and positively, come out selectively to people I thought might be open to the idea, and talked about it here and there online. But I’ve never really come out and said “Hi, I’m Avory, I’m polyamorous, and this is as important a part of how I negotiate relationships as being queer.”
The reason I’m doing so now is that poly comes up a lot in the media, and I think most people wouldn’t have a problem with it if they understood a little bit more. So I’d like to offer myself as an example—not as the only or best way to do poly, but as one possibly more palatable version to act as a conversation starter. I want to be clear that I absolutely support those who have different life experiences—individuals who have had many sexual partners, those who are married and want legal polygamy, those who came to poly because they were tempted to cheat—but that’s not me, and I’d like to share my story, too.
I found out about polyamory long before I claimed it as an identity. I came to accept it fairly slowly, and once I did accept it for others, it was a while before I saw the applicability of poly to my own life. There was a transition period where I said I’d be happy in a poly or a monogamous relationship, before I applied the poly label to myself.
I’ve always gone about sex and relationships in a relatively cautious and selective way. I’ve had fewer than ten sexual partners in my life, a fairly even mix of relationships and briefer encounters. I never felt the urge to cheat, really. Honesty has always been my #1 relationship value and as a monogamous person, I always said that I would rather know if a partner wanted to cheat or did it. I didn’t initially come to poly as a way to have multiple relationships. I simply didn’t have a problem with a partner having more than one relationship.
Over time, the way I practice poly has changed. I was in two relationships simultaneously for about a year. I also had one very positive encounter outside of those relationships, which both partners supported. I talk explicitly with my partners about whether we’re all comfortable with being “open” as well as poly, what we need from each other to make our relationships work, and what we need to do to be comfortable from a safer sex standpoint. Recently, one of my relationships transitioned smoothly back into friendship. But one constant for me in polyamory is that it’s always been mostly about recognizing the variety and fluidity of relationships.
People have all kinds of relationships: sexual, friendship, romantic, official, unrequited, etc. etc. In my life, I’ve been held back by expectations plenty of times—it’s not appropriate to flirt with a friend, or it’s wrong to admit a sexual attraction to someone you don’t want to date, or the word “love” must have a specific meaning that begins and ends along with an official relationship. If you have sex with a friend, you can’t say “I love you,” because that means something. If you end an official relationship, you can’t love that person or have sex after the relationship is over. Many, many expectations. And many of them, frankly, are bullshit.
I think that most of these lines we draw in the sand are artificial, and don’t reflect the nature of how humans relate with one another.
In modern society, especially among liberals and progressives, we allow a lot of things. It’s not generally a problem for someone to date several people at once as long as a name isn’t put to those relationships yet. Friends with benefits is an accepted term. Casual sex is expected, especially for young people. Cheating, though not condoned, is considered a normative behavior. Our standard relationship scripts incorporate cheating, breaking up and getting back together, being caught in a love triangle, and even (though a bit more fringe) open relationships and marriages where the participants have one committed romantic relationship but also engage in additional outside sexual relationships.
These scripts do not, however, include polyamory—the practice of having multiple acknowledged romantic relationships.
This seems kind of silly to me. Why would an official relationship be the line we cannot cross, something so strange to experience with multiple people that it is not only condemned but considered weird or freakish?
I suspect that, like many relationship topics, it has something to do with marriage. Over time, as romantic relationships other than marriage came into acceptance, we started to recognize the concept of a “boyfriend” or a “girlfriend” as a kind of audition for marriage, as well as the concept of an unmarried long-term lover or partner. Although these relationships are not the same as marriage, they are similar enough that we want them to have a particular meaning.
This is the same obsession with meaning that we hear in the same-sex marriage debates. I’ve heard plenty of moderate democrats say that they have no problem with same-sex couples recognizing their relationships, but that the word marriage means something. This sanctity of marriage argument carries over to other romantic relationships in softer form.
We expect that when someone has a boyfriend, girlfriend, lover, or partner, it means something that everyone around us can identify and understand. With the official relationship comes benefits—social recognition, being part of the couples’ club, giving the relationship itself a public dimension. Couples get invited to parties as a unit. People talk about “single people” and “people in relationships” as separate societies with collective understandings. And I suspect that some monogamously coupled people, at least on a subconscious level, are uncomfortable with polyamory in the same way those opposed to same-sex marriage are uncomfortable with an imagined slippery slope. If we allow people to enjoy these benefits with multiple partners, where will it stop? Will the importance of my monogamous relationship be diluted?
I think this attitude insults our collective imagination. People have relationships in so many different ways that it seems very arbitrary to leave out those who want their friends and family to recognize more than one significant romantic relationship. If we can recognize friends, roommates, and family members as significant, why not additional partners?
I’ve always liked the phrase “ethical non-monogamy,” because it focuses on the importance of honesty and communication in relationships—the point from which I’ve always approached polyamory. If you’re not sure about polyamory, or it doesn’t sit right with you, I encourage you to get back to the question of values. Using your values as a baseline, consider the example of a person who has multiple romantic relationships where all parties involved are aware of the relationships and communicate about what they mean. There may be disagreements, fights, and jealousy—polyamorous people are just as human and monogamous folks, after all—but honesty and communication are core principles of the relationship structure. Considering this example in the context of your personal values, does polyamory feel like an unethical outlier?
Of course, if the answer is yes, there’s nothing I can do. You feel that I am unethical or immoral, and that’s your decision to make. Or, you may feel okay about this hypothetical, but when presented with examples of how others do polyamory, feel uncomfortable again. That’s your right. But if you found yourself having a kneejerk reaction at the top of this post, when I declared that “I identify as polyamorous,” I would encourage you to go past that initial response and ask yourself why. You may be surprised at what you learn.
A few resources for my inevitably shocked friends and family: