A Paradoxical Process
Jealousy is not a measure of love. Not a controversial statement one might think. We readily accept, for example, that fear is not a measure of hate or that anger is not a measure of concern. Yet, when it comes to sex and relationships it seems that many of us have laid some pretty shaky foundations on which to base our emotional landscape. Of course, we haven’t necessarily set out to live our lives attaching inappropriate emotional responses to the ups and downs of our relationships; we have been inculcated from birth and our social history is one of the commodification of any person not attached to the tribal power elite. Our gender, class, sexual orientation, race and abilities are all mutable qualifiers that denote we might be objects to be owned, rather than people to be respected, if we are not part of the power-elite.
The power-elite, though, is a circle that is much, much wider than the 1% who own pretty much everything – it includes many of the poor who consider themselves temporarily embarrassed millionaires as well as the millions of people for whom life is so financially marginal that it is impossible to step outside the ever stretching boundaries of the white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy (WSCP). Making the personal political is thus enacted most easily by those with the resources to step in and out of the boundary layer; the middle classes. It’s easy to shrug off the commodification of others if the others you tend to meet are not those likely to be commodified and you have the money and property to ‘stick it to the man’, so to speak, while simultaneously benefiting from the system. And there lies the paradox of what used to be called ‘open relationships’, ‘consensual non-monogamy’ or, for the past few decades, polyamory: it’s all about rejecting convention yet those who fit the conventional mould are those with the power to enact it.
I dipped my toes into poly, for a couple of years, about 20 years ago in between two long-term, and a few short term, monogamous relationships; the last of the long-term relationships ended almost a year ago. I don’t regret those monogamous relationships at all and wish they were all still intact. But I do regret many of the aspects of monogamy I have eluded to above; feelings of being commodified, of lacking agency and being emotionally and sexually restrained within the monogamous contract – all the more acute because I have not been successful financially. Those utterly opposed to polyamory often claim poly people are unable to love completely, are selfish, are not able to commit or take responsibility in their relationships and I have some sympathy with those complaints but only, and I stress only, if I also accept the hegemonic power-structure in which monogamy and commodification has flourished: the State, the Church (insert other religious institutions here) and the corporations of the world, have made virtues of ownership and acquisition and I reject those values as guiding principles for my relationships.
Not wanting to own, or be owned, by another person is not just a conversation about the commerce of slavery in all its forms, it is also about the minutia of how we relate to everyone around us and especially how we love. Making the link between how we view love and sex and the terrors of slavery and the WSCP is not to shout a version of Godwin’s Law. Within power-based relationships, spousal murder is not uncommon as are rape and high levels of controlling behaviours and, by a large margin, the victims are usually women within heterosexual monogamous relationships.
As a cis, heterosexual man I am highly unlikely to find myself in the position that millions of women, trans and non-binary people find themselves on a daily basis. But, as a person of colour brought up in the 1950s and 60s, I’m well aware that violence is often just around the corner if one doesn’t tow the heavy line of subservience. So for me, being openly poly is as much about attempting to live up to my political and ethical positions as it is about wanting to have a more flexible and joyous personal life.
So I’m poly and out about it. I have friends (and perhaps family) who won’t like my commitment to what to me is a better way of living. I’m currently unpartnered and single and, looking from the outside, indistinguishable from being single and monogamous. Yet the difference is in how I’ll be structuring my romantic life in future, not in the number of partners I have or don’t have. In fact, having multiple partners is not really of huge interest to me – if it happens it happens – if not it doesn’t. What matters is the commitment to the principles of agency and non-hierarchical power I have outlined. I have discovered, though, that not all poly people share those ideas – many poly partnerships are as structured, and as hierarchical, as any conventional marriage; it’s as if the mores of power and control have simply been extended to include other people. That’s not for me.
In poly circles there’s a shed load of jargon (and in that respect it can look and sound a bit like a cult) and there are mountains of books, self-help podcasts and other on-line resources that have grown up around the basic premise of consensual non-monogamy. The category I find I fit most easily is called Relationship Anarchy (RA). I’m not an anarchist in a political sense (I think that’s what we have – the corporations are self-organizing and do what the fuck they like and that’s a whole other bottle of whisky) so for me the nomenclature is inaccurate. In essence, RA is about not replicating the power-structures of marriages, it’s about not creating hierarchies. Not having ‘primary partners’ who always are more important than ‘secondary partners’ and so-on. Not that I think I’ll be faced with such choices; as an older, cis heterosexual and mixed-race man I’m not exactly the typical poly person.
The second paradox concerns my gender and the power conferred upon it. In hetero-normative monogamous culture, being male gives one huge advantages, especially if one is white. As an Anglo-Thai I also fit the profile of the least attractive (to heterosexual or bi women) group of men within white culture. The OKCupid dating site carried out a survey https://theblog.okcupid.com/race-and-attraction-2009-2014-107dcbb4f060 a few years ago in which Asian men were shown to be the most unattractive proposition for white women – the difference between Asian and white men being a whopping 29 points. From an on-line dating perspective for someone like me living in a predominantly white, rural area (in which the number of Asian people is minuscule) it’s the difference between a match score of 90% and 61% – not encouraging. The (all good) values of RA, inclusive poly culture don’t see being a cis male as anything special so, paradoxically, I’m probably even less interesting in the poly world than outside it. Time will tell.
If by now you think that being poly is to absolve oneself of responsibility within relationships, I hope I’ve, partly at least, changed your mind. Over the last few months I’ve been attending social gatherings of poly people in my local area. What I’ve noticed is the exact opposite of irresponsibility and very high levels of commitment within each polycule (a rather cute name for poly families and/or connections) though, clearly, not without also noticing many of the same stresses that occur within all relationships. Poly isn’t perfect – nothing is – but it is at least, in the RA model, looking at love as something we should be free to feel and make real, not a process by which power relations are established and enforced.
And that brings me back to the subject of jealousy. As a mixed person of colour brought up within a very white rural culture, I’ve always had to deal with the reality that fully acknowledging one’s very existence has always been a massive compromise and often impossible. I remember feeling jealousy as a child but not since – even when I’ve been in situations where other heterosexual cis men would be shaking with rage. I’ve also had to be able to reconcile the two very different sides of my heritage – never a full member of the white tribe that brought me up and estranged, until middle-age, from my Thai family. I’ve been paradoxically lucky in that respect. Perhaps the appeal of Polyamory is more personal than I first thought.
Nick Nakorn 10th February 2019