I need to start this article by acknowledging that I am not an academic, nor am I a scholar. I’m a nerd: a nerd who loves to explore ideas, someone who has been fascinated with history and human psychology for as long as I can remember, and who is relentless in their quest to find meaning at the root of conflict.
Since my very first days of exploring non-monogamy, I’ve been aware that there are many approaches to it, and I’ve been confused by the messaging that polyamory is feminist, while witnessing patriarchal and misogynistic tropes play out in polyamorous relationships, the same way they do in monogamous ones. One of my early partners called it “multiple monogamy”. I’ve personally experienced forming relationships that seemed compatible at first, only to fall apart due to what I’ve named diplomatically as ‘values mismatches’. As I dig deeper I have begun to understand that what underlies these values mismatches comes down to different people having different understanding of what polyamory encompasses, and it can even reflect where an individual is at in their own understanding and journey of feminism and human rights.
I’m hoping that my lived experience as a mixed race queer person growing up in a mix of cultures, my years as a student of relationships, and the training that supports me in my work today as a relationship coach, qualifies me enough to talk about and share what I see and observe.
So, join me as I take a summary* peek through the last 200 years of feminism in the West and the parallel journey that non-monogamy has had, and consider Polyamory as a consequence of applying the principles of feminism to relationships.
*summary, because to really do a deep dive on this could be a whole thesis, and this is meant to be just a little article on the internet — but if you’re a PhD candidate looking for a juicy topic for a Feminist historical analysis and feel inspired to go deeper, I’d love to know what you find!
Wait — What exactly is Patriarchy?
Patri: latin, meaning father
Archy: latin/greek, meaning rule, or governance.
Patriarchy: rule of the father, default systems that give power to (certain) men over others (women, ‘lesser’ men, children, animals, land resources, etc).
Patriarchy is one of the longest running and most widespread social systems in human history.
The predominant model of monogamy we have today is one rooted in patriarchal traditions, traditions based on cis-normative pairings (ie a man and a woman), wherein the man has power (or even ownership) over the woman.
Patriarchy is a global phenomenon, and still dominates in most countries. Even though liberal Western Culture may now shun the idea of a woman becoming her husband’s ‘property’, there are still internalised trappings of these stories that show up in Monogamy and the dynamics of ownership (that any gender can internalise) within a romantic partnership. And, in more conservative Western Culture, the stories of ownership and gender roles still prevail.
All genders can both find benefit from, and experience harm with, patriarchy.
As the late bell hooks wrote:
“Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.”
Okay, so What is Feminism?
Femina: latin, meaning woman
ism: english, a suffix denoting a practice or process
Feminism: the process of womaning, or the process of being not-man.
Depending on who you ask, Feminism could be a lot of things. It could be the campaign for women’s suffrage (giving women the vote), or it could be about ‘breaking the glass ceiling’ (women occupying positions of power traditionally reserved for men), or it might even be about challenging the traditional roles of motherhood and redefining what marriage means. It might even be all of these — and it can be challenging to offer a singular definition because, over the past two hundred years, there have been successive waves of Feminism, each one building on what the previous one succeeded in and what it lacked.
Western Feminism vs The Rest Of The World
Before we get into the various waves of Feminism I think it’s really important that we remember these are Western (and in many cases, white) centric movements, and that the first steps into feminism and women’s rights have yet to see systemic success in many parts of the world.
Women’s emancipation has never been as simple as giving women the right to vote. For example: when I lived in Kuwait as a teenager the country was debating giving women the vote. In a country where the most conservative men practised polygamy, giving women the vote might seem to appease the progressive pressures from the West, but it was feared it could also backfire and give more power to the conservative men who would be dictating how their (often multiple) wives could vote. Women did eventually get the vote in Kuwait, but only after other measures to emancipate Kuwaiti Women, and it’s worth noting that women’s rights in Kuwait still has a long way to go.
However far those of us in the West think we have come, we have to remember that there are many parts of the world that are still fighting for the basic recognition of women as people, and there is still work for all of us to do.
Feminism has been described as having ‘waves’. Once a wave of Feminism starts, it doesn’t stop. Each wave will continue rippling through social systems, and disrupting different elements of patriarchy. Some may find themselves surfing a wave from 200 years ago, whilst others are ready to jump into the wave they see beginning to swell. The advent of each wave is usually marked with significant shifts in cultural awareness, and other human rights movements can be seen to weave parallel to these. And, in every wave of Feminism there has been push back, a fresh expression of puritanism that attempts to re-patrify that which has been liberated from the ‘rule of men’.
First wave of Feminism: Women Are People, Not Property
This wave began in the western world in the 1800s, and still continues to this day. It was the age of suffrage and campaigning for women to have the vote, go to school, and take their place alongside men in the workplace.
It was the first wave of Feminism that brought about a re-imagining of monogamy in the west. If women were not property, and could have agency, what would become of relationships then?
Non-Monogamous Commune Building
This period of time saw westerns beginning to experiment with non-monogamy that was based on non-ownership of women: the Oneida community was founded, in 1914 Emma Goldman wrote her now famous essay “Marriage & Love” which questioned romantic assumptions and challenged the social basis for marriage, and as World War 2 began, open relationships began to be explored in the armed forces.
It was also during this time that the Mormon Church, a sect that practised very much patriarchal non-monogamy where a single man was expected to have multiple wives, was founded. Though the Mormon church no longer officially endorses polygamy, there are offshoots of the church that still practise it.
Second Wave Feminism: Equality of the Sexes
In the west this began around the 1960s. It was an age of women’s empowerment. Women who had entered the workforce during World War 2 stayed there, and their daughters wanted to do even more. It was the age of Star Trek, and the mini-skirt uniforms that the actresses wearing them felt empowered in.
Revolutions in birth control in the 1950s had already given way to a growing movement of “Free Love”. This was a time of beatnik poets and writers like Octavia Butler and Ursula LeGuin deconstructing patriarchy, and Robert Heinlein exploring the ideas of multiple marriages through science fiction. It was also when the Kerista Commune (the group that gave us the word ‘compersion’) was formed. It was the growth of swinging (‘groovy, baby’) and when the Ravenhearts (their relationship structure inspired by Heinlein) combined Latin and Greek to coin the word “polyamory”.
The invention of the ‘nuclear family’, which both popularised a closed family unit in the face of the open marriages that blossomed during and just after WW2, and also drove consumerism through glamorising individual, self contained homes and family structures.
Third wave Feminism: Sex Positivity & Intersectionality
The 1980s and the advent of the AIDS crisis saw a shift in both Feminism and non-monogamy. While Intersectional Feminism (a term coined by Kimberlee Crenshaw in 1989) highlighted the disparities between white women and women of colour in the western world, the emergence of sex positivity in the 90s brought other important conversations to the forefront. This was a time of coming together within the queer communities to fight for gay rights, and pushing back against the stigmas that HIV carried.
The first Burning Man happened in 1986, and the psychedelic free love festivals of the 1970s gave way to the rave scene of the 80s and 90s, a space inspired by Ecstasy/MDMA and other drugs that enhanced the feeling of closeness amongst the dancers.
This was also the era in which the term “Ethical Non-Monogamy” emerged, and in 1997 two seminal books were published: Deborah Anapol’s Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits, and Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy’s The Ethical Slut. You didn’t have to be in a group marriage or commune to be polyamorous! You could be an autonomous being and have ‘ethically’ non-monogamous relationships with multiple consenting adults. (If you want to read more about the problems of the term ethical non-monogamy, check my article here.)
This was a peak time for Purity Culture and other evangelical movements that sought to demonise queerness & sex positivity: purity rings, chastity vows, and a push for abstinence based sex education.
Fourth wave Feminism: Consent and Human Rights
The early 2000s have been characterised by more awareness about Consent and wider campaigning for Human Rights. Thanks to the foundation laid by the work of intersectionality, Feminism isn’t just about women anymore, it’s about actively dismantling the systems of oppression that patriarchy has set up: this era has seen the legalisation in many western countries of same-sex marriage, broader sex education in schools, legislation to support trans rights, and much more.
As people begin to question the cultural biases of ethics, the term Consensual Non-Monogamy has become the more broadly accepted term. This era in non-monogamy has been characterised by internet polyamory ‘celebrities’ with LiveJournal and other blogs, and the progression of a version of non-monogamy that is couple-centric to that of an open network, or ‘polycule’.
Books like More Than Two and Opening Up have offered newcomers to Non-Monogamy a guide on how to do it the ‘right’ way, and numerous blogs and podcasts have expounded upon the exploration of non-monogamy. Seeing the need for more therapeutically sound advice, many individuals have been inspired to pursue their degrees in counselling, psychotherapy, and psychology, with the non-monogamous client in mind
2012 was a big year for for Non-Monogamy:
1. The publication of the Relationship Anarchy Manifesto,
2. The Supreme Court Decision in British Columbia, Canada recognising polyamory as distinct from bigamy (and therefore not included in the countries anti-bigamy laws, as long as no one was marrying multiple partners at the same time),
3. The arrival of a movement dedicated to Solo Polyamory, with the blogs Solo Poly and my own blog Polysingleish (and later, the Solo Polyamory Facebook Community) heralding a change, and empowerment for those who did not want to participate in the ‘Relationship Escalator’, a pathway for relating that is in many ways propped up by patriarchy.
During this same time period there has been a resurgence in “Neo-tantra” (Neo-T). The Neo-T world overlaps with the non-monogamous world a lot, and yet it contains remarkably patriarchal and gender essentialist ideas. Neo-T is a highly problematic and culturally appropriated approach to sexuality that fetishises oriental language and misinterprets ancient scriptures discussing elemental energies to reinforce patriarchal gender tropes through concepts like Divine Masculine and Sacred Feminine.
At the same time, personalities like Jordan Peterson and Andrew Tate have created a cult following over a rejection of trans rights, and pick-up artistry and incel movements have sought to support promiscuity for men while shaming and abusing women for it.
Fifth wave Feminism: Me Too, Ecofeminism, Cultural Change
I’d argue that we’re right now seeing the beginnings of a fifth wave of Feminism and cultural change. It may just be the first swells, yet to grow into a cresting wave, but in this wave many throughlines are converging: human rights, socialism, Feminism, intersectionality, queer politics, and non-monogamy. The Pandemic has shifted everything, and we’re experiencing movement away from the individualism and consumerism of nuclear family relating, into communal and horizontal structures of social equity and community care.
Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and Extinction Rebellion may have planted the seeds for what is to come, but this wave encompasses much more. This wave isn’t just about a critical examination of how institutions have continued to uphold dynamics of harm: it’s about changing it.
The vast numbers of people (including myself) now living with Long Covid, and the many immune-challenged folks who still cannot go back to life as it was pre-pandemic have led to more conversations about ableism. Lockdowns have changed how we live, and work-from-home options are shifting the way we relate to having jobs, and our workplaces are having to move away from ‘productivity’ to results-oriented measures. At the same time, the climate crisis has seen a wave of eco-feminism, a movement that draws parallels between the exploitation of the world’s natural resources as akin to the way women, children, and people of colour have been exploited by men in power.
“…Declarations of ownership of and dominion over anything that lives (or sustains life) isn’t just delusional—it’s criminally insane. When a culture chooses to believe anything that is not human can be property—a “resource” to burn, bulldoze, bastardize, pimp, torture, enslave, exterminate—this leads to the aggressive destruction of entire ecosystems, including old-growth forests, grasslands, wetlands, deserts, waterways, and other essential habitat. This destruction is speeding up, not slowing down, and is a direct and major cause of extinction—including our own if we don’t stop the madness. For me and for many others, these are hate crimes. It’s a kind of a rape, but rape culture teaches us to shut up and take it.”
The Fifth wave is as much about the rights of our non-human relations as it is about our human ones, and I see global Indigenous wisdom rising to the forefront of this.
If Polyamory has come about as an attempt to apply Feminism to intimate relationships, then the next wave of Feminism will create changes in Non-Monogamy too.
During the Pandemic the non-monogamous world has seen the calling out of some of the early Polyamory influencers for harm they have caused. Critical analysis of more recent seminal works like More Than Two has resulted, and during the pandemic there has been a renaissance in publishing on Polyamory, with a call for more centring of BIPOC voices and perspectives.
In 2021 the American Psychology Association adopted guidelines to support better care for non-monogamous clients, and in the US and Canada potential patients in multi-partner relationships can now search for a friendly and affirming therapist on the Psychology Today website using the key term “non-monogamy”. The publication of Jessica Fern’s Polysecure has furthered the discussion about emotional and psychological wellness and wellbeing in non-monogamous relationships.
We’ve seen a blossoming community of social media polyamory ‘celebrities’, both laypeople, coaches, and therapists alike, who are now the go-to when the media wants to interview someone. Academic activists like Dr Kim Tallbear have expounded upon the need to decolonise and indigenise intimate spaces, and more and more people are thinking about relational ecosystems as an alternative to the relationship escalator. As the pandemic has challenged the individualistic systems of resourcing and encouraged people to seek out more networks of care within their friend circles, I see people leaning into building not just polycules, but as I think of them, anarcules: similar to a polycule, but not limited to partners; a network of relations that is not bound by imposed order or other assumptions, but forms through mutuality, alignment of values & interests, & collaborative agreement. An anarcule could include romantic partners, lovers, chosen family, platonic partnerships, nesting-mates, friends, non-human companions, and more.
There is a rise of new “men’s movements”, and while some seem to be doing good work to help men break out of the restrictions of patriarchy, there are also many that, growing out of the Divine Masculine tropes of Neo-T, uphold ‘traditional’ gender roles, and with an enthusiasm for sexual dominance layered under sex-positive language, seeks to convince women that their life purpose is to become sexual objects to be ‘worshipped & possessed by their man’. Some of these movements may envision re-villaging, and a return to more ‘primal’ ways of living.
As sex-positive events reopen post-pandemic I have seen a concerning increase in events that define themselves as “for men” or “for women”, excluding trans non-binary and gender non-conforming folks. Sex parties for “conventionally attractive” people only discriminate against the fat, the disabled, the visibly trans, and often against BIPOC folks as well (who may either not meet white standards of attractiveness, or not be accepted because they fail to meet a fetishised expectation of their appearance).
There is also a growing proliferation of non-monogamy in alt-right spaces — I’ve seen an increase in social media showcasing polygamous relationships, and more specifically, one of the MAGA supporters who died on Jan 6th 2021 in Washington DC was part of a triad. Would-be cult leaders like Aubrey Marcus — who straddles the space between ‘hippie-granola’ and ‘new-age-fascism’ with his corporate pseudo spiritual empire and non-monogamy manifesto — are furthering the idea that non-monogamy is an ‘evolved’ relationship and is for thin, attractive (and mostly white) people.
The language of non-monogamy developed by Feminists and POC has been appropriated by conservative, right-wing, neo-fascist polygamous folks, who practise their non-monogamy using modern language, but adhering to white-centric, cis-centric, couple-centric principles that might have been seen as progressive in the 1940s, but lack the intersectionality that modern non-monogamy has embraced. Patriarchal Non-Monogamy would seem to be envogue.
Which Wave Are You Surfing?
In an ideal world, we’d all be catching the same wave at more or less the same time. But, our world is far from ideal, and that’s not the reality we live in.
What I find interesting is that the rate of change seems to be accelerating (or is that my cognitive bias, having lived through some of these waves and being able to see them in more detail?), and that each new wave brings perspectives that help us see the unaddressed harm that was allowed to continue in the previous movement.
I think about the people I’ve met who think they are being Feminist because they support women’s right to vote. Or because they support sharing their workplace with women. And to them, that’s progressive. But to folks who are riding that Fourth wave and ready to catch the Fifth, their attitudes and actions feel sorely lacking. And I think I finally have the words and concepts to help me understand those value mismatches I have observed and experienced, where polyamorists have continued to play out patriarchal conditioning in their non-monogamy: in some cases, they don’t realise that they are. They’ve caught a wave of Feminism, even if it’s one that (in the West at least) feels like just a gentle ripple now.
If we are indeed beginning to see a fifth wave forming, I’m so here for it: a queering of relationships beyond the sexual intimacies that patriarchy has positioned as paramount; a movement away from individualism, consumerism, and chronic codependency in an unsustainable corporate capitalist hellscape, and into a collectivist, compassionate, mycelial, communal social ecology.
And who knows what a 6th wave would bring? Perhaps that will be heralded by the arrival of legal structures that make legitimising polyamory in the eyes of the law easier— something which I have mixed feelings about, and I worry that if we do see this happen it will be conservative elements leading that push. As Feminism and Intersectionality develop more with trauma-informed bodies of work, with writers and teachers like Resmaa Menakem addressing internalised white supremacy and colonialism using the tools and language of Somatics, perhaps we’ll be leaving the intellectual realms of patriarchal atheism and arriving at Feminist, science-backed, spirituality — and psychology researchers will refine their understandings of group attachment needs and the essential role of community?
Societal change on a global scale does not happen overnight. It takes years, decades, perhaps even centuries. Whilst I have the privilege to live in a country that grants me rights and freedoms to express these thoughts, many do not. I am poignantly aware that as I type these words espousing equity, communities of care, and resource sharing, that people in the Middle East are being executed for supporting women’s bodily autonomy. Even in Canada, the hard-won rights for women, trans persons, and people of colour are constantly at risk or being undermined, and we have still yet to achieve justice, healing, and recognition of the rights of First Nations women and children. To even be able to turn our minds to these ideas reflects considerable privilege.
And yet, while societal change may move at what seems like snail’s pace, with the pendulum swinging back and forth every few years between conservative patriarchy and progressive Feminist values, and the macro-changes can feel out of reach, what we can — each and every one of us do — is deconstruct and dismantle the ways patriarchy impacts our most intimate of spaces. How do we do that? Creatively. Collectively. Compassionately.
It may be tempting to give over to fatalism in these times of climate crisis, political upheaval, inflation, and pandemics. So I invite you to grow your relationship with this hope: non-monogamous or not, if we can succeed in making progress towards Feminist, radical relationships, cultivating our relational ecosystems, and growing our anarcules of loving connections, then perhaps we, as humanity, stand a real chance of thriving into the future.
Gratitude to Alexandria, Cass, Charis, Julie, and Naia, who all contributed reflections and suggestions to help complete this article.
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