Should Feminists Be Critical of Compulsory Monogamy?

In 1980, Adrienne Rich broke new ground in her essay “On Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” in which she argued that feminism need not merely include lesbian voices but actively critique compulsory heterosexuality as a patriarchal institution. More than 30 years later, feminist support for gay and lesbian rights has become commonplace, and is frequently accompanied by an awareness of the intersections between patriarchy and heterosexism. But we have yet to turn a critical eye toward the similarly functioning institution of compulsory monogamy.

Throughout our lives, we’re bombarded with messages about what we’re supposed to desire in romantic relationships. It begins in childhood with fairy-tales and continues to RomComs, dating-advice columns and diamond commercials. This is where we’re taught that straight relationships are ideal, but it’s also where we’re taught that monogamy is the only possible option. As feminists, we’ve learned to speak out and criticize these narrow visions of romance for their heteronormativity as well as for their strict enforcement of gender roles, their frequent double-standards for male and female behavior and their two-dimensional portrayals of women. But we fail to acknowledge the institution of compulsory monogamy that underlies media portrayals of love and romance, or how that institution has worked hand-in-hand with patriarchy for much of history.

In a multitude of times and places in the world—including the present day—sexual infidelity has been either implicitly or explicitly condoned for men, while for women punishments for infidelity have ranged from social condemnation to death. When men have faced harsh legal punishments for adultery, it is typically only when they have played the role of “the other man:” that is, when they have “stolen” another man’s rightful property. But women are still sentenced to death for infidelity in some parts of the world—often for a mere perceived flirtation with another man. Sometimes, such “unfaithful” women were the victims of rape.

In the United States our punishments are thankfully much less severe, but our double-standards for male and female infidelity—just as for all expressions of male and female sexuality—are alive and well. As with sexual promiscuity, a woman who engages in infidelity is shamed as a “slut.” Male infidelity is not entirely condoned in all social spaces, but there are still plenty of men willing to high-five their friends for their extra-marital conquests, and frequently “the other woman” is the one who faces condemnation for “tempting” the man. When men break the bonds of monogamy, they are seen as giving in to their base, masculine nature. But when women commit infidelity, they are viewed as not only betraying a partner, but betraying their virtuous, sexually pure gender role as well.

When people consider alternatives to monogamy, however, most think only of religiously based patriarchal polygamy, an arrangement which merely reproduces the same double-standard by allowing multiple wives for men and denying women the same freedom. But far more egalitarian non-monogamous relationships do exist. Though exact numbers are hard to come by, it’s estimated that between 4 and 5 percent of Americans are in some form of openly non-monogamous relationship, many of them polyamorous. Defined as the practice of romantically loving more than one partner with the full knowledge and consent of all involved, modern polyamory has many feminist roots, and though there is great variety to what a polyamorous family might look like, polyamorous men and women are generally equally free to seek multiple romantic and sexual partners. And although there are polyamorous folks across the political and ideological spectrums, a large number are feminists, progressives and leftists—hardly the people who come to mind when we think of traditional, patriarchal polygamy.

Of course one function of compulsory monogamy is that polyamorous relationships are widely condemned, by both liberals and conservatives alike. But it’s important to reflect on the root of that condemnation. Whenever a society prohibits a certain behavior or identity, that prohibition is most likely serving the interests of people in positions of power. As feminists, we should always question these socially mandated norms. Is monogamy enforced simply out of tradition? Or is it enforced as yet another way to control and police women’s bodies and sexuality?

As feminists, I believe we have an interest in supporting, rather than condemning, egalitarian polyamorous relationships. These relationships reject male ownership of women and offer a challenge to traditionally gendered expectations for monogamy. In turn, they have the potential to disrupt gender roles in an even broader sense. We all stand to benefit from supporting relationships that serve as a model for less patriarchal, less hierarchical ways of intimately relating to one another.

It would be unreasonable to argue that all feminists should reject monogamous relationships, just as it is unreasonable to suggest that all feminists should reject heterosexuality. Monogamous, heterosexual relationships can be wonderfully egalitarian, too, and certainly not everyone has the desire or the inclination to be in multiple romantic relationships simultaneously. But just as one can be straight and still critical of compulsory heterosexuality, it is possible to engage in monogamous relationships and yet still be critical of the institution of compulsory monogamy. I hope we can begin having a dialogue about this institution, examining what it is and how it functions, and envisioning a future without it.

What do you think?

Photo from Wikimedia Commons user Akrabbim under license from Creative Commons 3.0


Angi Becker Stevens is a fiction writer whose work has appeared in many print and online literary magazines, in addition to being anthologized in Best of the Web 2010 and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her non-fiction has appeared online RH Reality Check, AlterNet, Common Dreams, and Socialist Worker. As a member of The Organization for a Free Society, she participates in a variety of activist work for social justice.