In last week’s post Identifying Reality I cited a New York Times article pointing out that younger people, especially ages 18-24, are more comfortable with transgender identities at least in part as a result of a greater awareness of such a thing. Another incredibly frightening example of acceptance bred by familiarity can be found in the February 2016 issue of Cosmopolitan. That issue includes an article by Taffy Brodesser-Akner entitled “The Swing Set.” The article’s subtitle reads, “Monogamy is seen as the gold standard, but other relationship models–throuples, quads!–are emerging from the sidelines and shedding their stigma.” The four-page article is on the topic of polyamory, something I have warned about in at least three previous posts. Unfortunately, it is not going away. In fact, it is, if you can believe what you read is Cosmo, only becoming more prevalent–and I have no reason right now to think that it will not continue to do so.
The article begins with an introduction of Jane and Carlos. They love to have a good time, and if you are fond of a good time and you are “low drama” then “they might be interested in having sex with you. Or a relationship with you. Either way, they’re looking to add to what they have going on with each other. It could also be you and your boyfriend…or your girlfriend.” In other words, any combination is fine. Anything that is pleasurable is acceptable. The only condition Jane and Carlos have, apparently, is this: “[Y]ou’d better mean it, because they’re not really into one-night stands.”
Brodesser-Akner goes on to introduce others into the polyamory lifestyle. Lexi is only 18 years old, but says she loves and cares too much–too much for just one recipient, apparently. Accordingly, “she wants to spread that love over more than one person, maybe you and your boyfriend or you and your girlfriend.” She has one requirement, too: “I just want to be accepted for who I am.” After all, if we accept everyone for who they are, if we let everyone do whatever makes them happy, if we just all get along, then everything will be fine, right? We do not need to have all of these confining rules and boundaries that prevent people from doing whatever it is that makes them happy. If Lexi wants to sleep with multiple partners, males and females, what difference should that make to the rest of us so long as it is all consensual? Why should we tell Lexi that she should only have sex with one person, and that person should be a man and be within the confines of a marriage relationship?
Stephen has a girlfriend who already has a child and she has two other lovers. Since she has other lovers, Stephen may want to have others, too. Apparently he has stated as much in his profile on a website specifically designed to help “nonmonogamous people find one another.” Since I have zero interest in spreading awareness of this site I am not going to name it but it cannot come as any surprise that such a site exists. After all, there was another prominent site that was designed specifically to connect married individuals who wanted to have an affair–something no one seemed to balk at until the site was hacked and names were released. And it is not as if the site were operating under the radar; it had been prominently featured in national news outlets.
Brodesser-Akner raises a very interested point in the early paragraphs of her article. Specifically, she writes,
You can’t move forward into thinking about all the very new (and sometimes very old) alternatives to monogamy if you don’t first confront your own feelings on the topic. Like, why do you think your relationship should be just two people? Where in your brain and heart did you first start to find it startling that two people, once united, would ever want to stray from each other or include other people in their union? At what point did your upbringing–possibly Judeo-Christian and/or puritanical–dictate your ideals so absolutely?
I am, for the most part, going to ignore the implication that Judeo-Christian principles are puritanical. Brodesser-Akner’s use of the “and/or” leaves open the possibility that someone could have puritanical principles that were not rooted in Judeo-Christian beliefs but I think her point is clear. Many people do feel that Judeo-Christian beliefs include a severe set of rules that are designed specifically to minimize pleasure. A professor of mine in college used to joke that a Puritan was someone who lived in constant fear that someone, somewhere was having fun. That was a bit of hyperbole, of course, but as is usually the case there was an element of truth. “Puritanical” means, by definition, “.” Excessively so means beyond what is reasonable. The suggestion, then, is that monogamy may well be unreasonable. There may be no good reason to suggest or believe that monogamy is the way to go other than subscribing to outlandish, over-the-top restrictions on personal freedom. Interestingly, by the way, polygamy was not uncommon in the ancient Judeo-Christian world….
Anyway, Brodesser-Akner’s question is a valid one. Where does the idea that relationships should be just two people come from? And if it came solely from strict upbringing based on puritanical ideas, then why not cast off such constraints? The “rules” of Judeo-Christianity state that a marriage is to be between one man and one woman and adultery is wrong. But why? What is monogamy gets boring? A comedian was once reading a list of humorous things kids say and included this one: “Marriage is between one man and one woman. This is called monotony.” Hahahaha, roared the audience. But deep down inside don’t we feel that way sometimes? Wouldn’t we like to know what else is out there? Wouldn’t we like to add some spice and excitement to our romantic relationships? That is Brodesser-Akner’s suggestion. She goes on to write that there are many ways to practice “consensual nonmonogamy” and the variety is precisely the point. “This is people making it up as they go along so that their relationships stay fulfilling,” she writes.
Despite any wish we may have to think this is a weird, fringe movement among a minute portion of society we cannot turn a blind eye to this. Cosmopolitan bills itself as a publication that “Targets contemporary women, featuring beauty, fashion, career and sex advice.” According to its own media kit, Cosmo is a force to be reckoned with. There are an average of 6.88 readers per issue of the magazine, and these include single (45.3%), married (38.1%) and divorced or separated women (16.6%). More than 52% of primary women readers who responded to a survey about popular women’s magazines indicated that Cosmo is one of their favorites and said they spend an average of 75 minutes with each issue–tops, by far, for both categories. College Store Executive, the industry magazine for college bookstores, reported in its 30th anniversary issue that Cosmopolitan has been the best-selling magazine in college bookstores for 25 years. It leads the way in just about every category for women readers, but is far and away the top magazine among women 18-34 years of age. That is significant because that is precisely the group of people who will become more comfortable with things like polyamory and will, at the same time they are becoming more comfortable with it, become more influential in politics and decision-making positions that will shape the future of our nation. Not only our nation, by the way; Cosmo is distributed in 110 countries and published in 64 international issues.
The concern is not just the potential influence of Cosmo, though. Brodesser-Akner’s article reports that a University of Michigan professor who is “a prominent researcher in the field of consensual nonmonogamy” has found that “up to 5% of people may be in some sort of nonmonogamous relationship.” If that is true, that is higher than the number of Americans who self-identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender; it was widely reported in 2015 that a Gallup survey found that fewer than 4% of Americans so identify.In July 2014 the Washington Post reported that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey found that 96.6% of U.S. adults identify as straight. That survey found only 1.6% identified as gay or lesbian and 0.7% as bisexual. But look at all of the changes in laws, in public accommodations, and more, than have stemmed from that tiny group of people. Last week’s post on transgender issues included a New York Times report than the transgender population of the U.S. was maybe 0.6% of the total–but look at the insanity surrounding that, from school district guidelines to athletic competition rules and so on. If 5% of the population really is involved in polyamory then we have to expect that there will soon be a movement to recognize the legitimacy of such relationships.The Cosmo article also reports that recent data indicates as may as 16% of U.S. men and 31% of men report an openness to trying a nonmonogamous relationship. And the website I referenced earlier that is designed to connect these people? It had 8,500 registered users in April 2015 and 152,000 by September of that year–with 75% of them “paying and active users.”
The reality, of course, is that, despite the happiness and contentment that many people in these kinds of relationships claim to experience, there are real risks. The Cosmo article mentions Sophie and Luke who have this rule for their relationship: “They’re allowed to hook up with whomever they want to, and they both prefer advance warning. They don’t like to go into too many details afterward.” I wonder that might be? No doubt it is because, whether we like it or not, we are “wired” to now that sleeping around is wrong. When we have a deeply intimate relationship with someone else and care deeply for that person, we are not really okay with that person going out at getting from someone else what they should be getting from us. I heard someone say jokingly one time that he married his wife because he was tired of shaking her hand. That was a lighthearted means of referring to the elements of a marriage relationship that have, traditionally, been recognized as only appropriate within a marriage–and which is only and always supposed to be monogamous.
Interestingly, Brodesser-Akner provides Oneida, New York as an example of polyamory having “been around for a while.” She writes that Oneida was “one of the first documented examples of polyamory in the U.S.” and that it existed from the 1840s to 1880, “rejecting monogamy in search of a utopian ideal.” That’s true. But if you know anything about the Oneida community–and I include it every year in the U.S. History class I teach–then you also know it was a failure. Believe it or not, Ellen Wayland-Smith, who is a Professor of Writing at the University of Southern California and received her Ph.D. in comparative literature from Princeton University–and also a descendant of John Humphrey Noyes, who founded the Oneida community–published a book in May of this year on the Oneida community. In the opening chapter of the book she writes that brainchild of Noyes “would blend a utopian ethic of total selflessness, communism of property, and divinely sanctioned free love into one of the most baroque interpretations of Jesus ‘everlasting gospel’ ever attempted.” It would have been more accurate to say “broken interpretations.” Nevertheless, you can read the book for yourself, or just Google the Oneida community, and it will not take long for you to discover that the free love Noyes championed did not result in happiness for all. Indeed, quite the opposite is true, as it led to plenty of problems.
Equally interesting is that Brodesser-Akner goes on to say, after referencing Oneida, that Mormon and Muslim polygamists, when men marry multiple wives, are “not what we’re talking about here, since those choices are mired in religious belief and patriarchal ideology.” Clearly, though, Noyes’s ideas of free love were also “mired in religious belief.” And religion does not necessarily mean something pertaining to a belief about God, a god or any kind of divine being. Part of the dictionary.com definition of religion reads this way: “
Nonmonogamy does not work. Not really. Brodesser-Akner reports, “All the people I interviewed have sets of rules. So many rules that their rules have rules.” Yet, a woman named Kate that she spoke to was, by her own admission, “cheating on her nonmonogamous relationship” because she was doing things that broke the rules she and her husband had agreed upon, including sleeping regularly with the same guy (which broke a rule) and said guy was on their agreed-upon list of people she could not sleep with (because he was an ex-boyfriend). And why do they have such rules anyway? “To protect them from having anything more than a sexual relationship with the other person.” In other words, to be sure that they do not develop relationships with anyone else. This is all a result of the false notion that sex is nothing more than a physical act. But God designed it to be far more than that. Sex is a wonderful thing within a marriage because that is the way the Designer intended it to be enjoyed. Sex is not just a physical act; it is an intimate act that involves much more than physical interaction. There is a reason why multiple studies report that those with the greatest sex lives are those within monogamous marriages.
Brodesser-Akner ends her article quoting the research professor saying that “society has decided that monogamy is best, even though there are many monogamous couples who aren’t happy that way.” That’s actually disingenuous, as there are no doubt polyamorous couples who are not happy that way, either. Examples of people unhappy in a specific arrangement does not mean that the arrangement is wrong. That would be akin to suggesting that because David Ortiz floundered during his stint with the Minnesota Twins to the extent that he was cut by the team means that he was not a very good baseball player. Millions of Red Sox fans would disagree with that conclusion. You cannot argue for something based solely on examples of the anti-something not working. Brodesser-Akner’s own conclusion that the people in these polyamorous relationships are “willing to do anything possible…in order to find a sustainable way to love and be loved. In that regard, we are all the same.” The same in wanting to love and be loved, perhaps, but the use of the term “sustainable” is careless. Look throughout history and you will not find any sustainable polyamorous societies. Oneida is only one example of their failure. Regardless, we must be alert; now that homosexual marriage has been legalized, the push for legal recognition of polyamory is just around the corner.