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Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Rise of Polyamory: Leftist men’s self-serving cure all for sexism (2006)

Those of you who subscribe to off our backs may have seen a slightly condensed form of this, but here you are, my first (and published!) feminist theory in its entirety.

NOTE: This is about very specific groups, namely activist/anarchist scenes, and hetero polyamory within them.

The Rise of Polyamory:
Leftist men’s self-serving cure all for sexism.

“The pornographic conception of female power is
fundamental to the anti-feminism of sexual-liberation
movements in which unlimited sexual use of women
by men is defined as freedom for both: she wants it;
he responds; viola! The revolution.”
Andrea Dworkin, Right Wing Women

1. more than one, many, multi-
1. loving
2. having to do with love
3. inclined to love
4. in love

I believe in polyamory, but only in a society where everyone is equal, where everyone is allowed to be human. Polyamory, therefore, cannot exist in our society.

I have been a polyamorist all my life, before I had knowledge of the word polyamory. I am still a polyamorist today, but I cannot bring myself to practice anymore, because polyamory as a mutually fulfilling practice cannot exist in a society that does not see me as human. The rise of polyamory as the preferred lifestyle in the radical leftist/anarchist circles parallels the “sexual revolution” of the late ‘60s movement. This supposed sexual freedom for women is done not for our benefit, but for the benefit of men. The ultimate goal for these “radical” men is still the fuck.

In both the present and 60s “sexual revolutions” women’s sexuality has not been freed. It is not our sexuality that we are “reclaiming,” but the sexuality that men desire us to have because it benefits them. Being open to the fuck, as all polyamorous women are supposed to be, is men’s definition of liberated female sexuality. There has not been a women orientated sexual revolution yet. There needs to be. Having multiple partners at any given time is not liberating for women, for we are not seen as human, but as sexual chattel. We are passed back and forth between brothers in arms; our sexuality defined not by ourselves, but by those same men. One thing almost all leftist men, our supposed allies, agree upon is that polyamory is freeing for women. This is cause for examination. Are these men our allies? What constitutes an ally? In the case of sexism an ally is a man who sees women as human beings. Allies are men who jeopardize their privileged status with other men by defending women. This also means (but is not limited to) being willing to be arrested and/or beaten (as the police are liable to do these days) at an action or protest in support of or for women’s rights. The men who purport to be our allies may support polyamory, but only a few have actually laid their bodies on the line, the way my sisters and I do daily, for women’s issues. Unless they are willing to jeopardize their status with other men and put their bodies on the line they are not allies, and should be treated as enemies.

Polyamory, in essence, is based upon a respect for all people involved, and respect is impossible without equality. Polyamory is taught as a way for women to reclaim their sexuality, but we cannot reclaim things that have always been defined for us by other people: namely men. Men have defined our sexuality; they have defined words used to describe women’s sexuality and behaviors such as bitch, slut, whore, cunt, etc. Where are the positive words to define women’s sexuality? The lack of their existence is proof that women have never defined our own sexuality. When we attempt to “reclaim” these words, and give them a new meaning they remain hurtful to us, as they retain their original meanings and are still used negatively by others. An example: the American Heritage Dictionary defines the term bitch as “a female canine animal, esp. a dog” and “a spiteful or overbearing woman.” I am neither, and no matter how positively I use the term it will always mean a female dog and a spiteful woman. As long as we continue to use the words and behaviors defined by the oppressors we will never break the cycle of oppression; we will never truly be free. Female sexuality can never be reclaimed; it must be defined in the first place, something that has never happened. Reclamation is misleading, and an ultimate dead end. We can never reclaim anything that was never ours in the first place. Reclamation of our bodies, and of terms used to describe us is not a good strategy, or even possible. The terms of “liberated” female sexuality have not been defined by women, but by men to their own benefit.

The “sexual revolution” of the ‘60s was supported by leftist men. Women had legitimate reason to say no, because of a real fear of pregnancy, so leftist men started backing legal abortion. When abortion was legalized, and women continued saying no, because of the real problem that they were being treated as sexual chattel, leftist men abandoned the abortion issue. Some even argued against legalized abortion. Why? Because safe, legal abortion was supposed to insure men’s sexual access to any woman. Now during the second Amerikan “sexual revolution,” abortion rights are under attack, birth control is more accessible[1], and safe sex is a popular catch phrase. Yet nothing has changed. Women have more control over and access to knowledge of our reproductive organs, but that makes men believe that they should have unlimited sexual access to women. Our male counterparts on the radical left gloss over feminist issues of human equality, and substitute the self-serving cure all of polyamory. To them being polyamorous means that they are supporting women, however this is not the case. They are unwilling to acknowledge their privilege as men or their behaviors that reinforce sexism in society and they still expect us to be available for a quick fuck; something that is fulfilling for them alone.

Both of these so-called revolutions have produced the mother/child dynamic absent of accessible fathers. If the move towards polyamory is supposed to be liberating, why then does it create the same absentee fathers, and alienated mother/child pairs? Where is the day care or the support for mothers within the revolutionary movements? Why is revolution inaccessible to them? We have long passed the days when women gained access to and were allowed to remain in movement groups only because they were being fucked by one of the male members. (Women were only included in groups while being fucked. When the men tired of them the radical group dropped them.) These days, women can work in radical leftist groups without having to sleep with anyone in them to begin with, though human equality still has not been achieved. Women are not asked to join groups because of what they can offer the group through ideas or work, but instead they are only allowed to join to enhance and fill the dating pool. Under the new definition of “sexual liberation,” i.e. polyamory, women do not gain access to the group by one man, but they gain access to the group by being polyamorous; by being accessible to all the men of the group. Once women join these groups they are treated like fresh “meat” and aggressively pursued. An activist man once told me that the main reason men became activists was to get laid. I could not believe him at the time, thinking that people became activists because they couldn’t bear to allow injustices to continue, but the actions of these “activist” men have proven his statement to be true. I have seen men aggressively pursue new women in these groups until the women finally give in and sleep with the overly aggressive men. They are then used, discarded, and disappear from the group entirely because the problems with these men are dismissed as personal problems, not a problem the group has with allowing and enabling these men to abuse women and perpetuate misogynistic behaviors. All this has been done in the name of “polyamory.”

I have time and again defended polyamory by saying that most people do not practice it correctly. There is a lack of the respect and honesty that is inherent in equality, and I loathe the way people use the term polyamory to describe their relationships when it is obviously structured around free sexual access for men, not reciprocity and self-determination for both. A true sexual revolution would require the men in these groups to study and admit their privilege. The true sexual revolution will have men viewing us as equal, as human not pornography, and will be based on mutuality and respect. There can be no sexual freedom without economic and political freedom. As long as men have power over women in any aspect of our society women will not be free sexually, because our sexual freedom is dependent upon whether or not we are valued as human. Men do not study their privilege; it is unimportant to them if women leave different groups, because the man, by nature of his manhood, was obviously doing more work then she was, because he is human, and she is not. In most instances the women work harder (we have to in order for our work to even be slightly acknowledged), but as we see daily, women’s work has no real worth to men unless it is sexual in nature when it is encouraged. In a true sexual revolution real women’s work (not the work historically assigned to us) would be valued as much as the men’s work and these men would not be allowed to continue chasing women away from activist groups.

Men argue that polyamory is freeing for women; it releases us from the old idea of ownership. This is not true. Under the new polyamorous definition of female sexuality women are not owned by one man, instead we are owned by many. In our new “sexual freedom,” we are a fuck all can enjoy instead of just one. When we decide we aren’t polyamorous, given the male defined terms and standards, we are called “old-fashioned” a term that by leftist standards is degrading and humiliating. Radical women do not like being equated with old-fashioned ideas of sexuality, which are laden with inequalities. We are trying to claim our minds, our hearts, and our bodies, and we are also struggling not to be perceived as wanting a home and family. In fact this is not what we want at all. We want relationships in which we are viewed as equals, as humans, and if a family results from that it may be good, but it’s not what we’re looking for. Because of the views towards non-polyamorous relationships I have seen many unwilling women sleep with other men in order to prove that they are not “old-fashioned,” but that they are in fact new, “liberated” women.

Prostitution for male attention and approval is a common theme, no matter how radical we are. As long as we value our ‘partners” wants and desires above our own needs we will continue to prostitute ourselves. We need to take the power away from men to coerce us using our so-called liberated sexuality. This is only one of many coercion tactics that men use on us, but it raises a very important question: why do we need to be coerced into liberty? If these types of polyamorous relationships were actually liberating why do women need to be coerced into them? Liberation does not require underhanded tactics that leftist men use such as shaming and name-calling. This is not a free choice for many women, and cannot be seen as liberty.

When we decide not to share our beds and our bodies with more then one man we risk being called anti-sexual. Many women I know who choose this path are not anti-sexual, but anti-sexism. They choose to form their own ideas about their sexuality, instead of blindly following a sexual doctrine that they do not find fulfilling. This is the true meaning of sexual liberation. The freedom to say yes or no. The smear campaign against women who say no raises serious questions about whose sexuality is being freed. If we happen to be heterosexual, we choose to wait for someone that we consider an ally who is worthy of having a relationship with us, and these men are hard to find. When our definition of female sexuality is not men’s definition of female sexuality we are pressured to conform, and if we don’t we are shunned, ridiculed, attacked, and humiliated. If we choose to have a relationship with one man, who we consider to be our ally, we are defined as old-fashioned, or sometimes we are seen as women who have not yet liberated our sexuality. A committed relationship with one man ensures that we will be able to hold him accountable in ways that would be impossible with many men. So why are women who participate in polyamory the only ones who are seen as free and liberated? Isn’t the ability to choose true liberation?

I no longer support polyamorous relationships in public, because so many people, mostly men, are wanton and harmful in their practice of it. That, unfortunately but logically, is the norm not to the exception. In a society of true equals, where women are allowed to be human, polyamory is a wonderful choice. Some of us are capable of loving many people at the same time, and want to be able to have relationships with all of them, but love is not the basis for the current polyamorous relationship, the fuck is.

Radical leftist/anarchist circles are just reconstructions of larger society. They purport to be fighting against capitalism and all its effects, but never once attack the major ways in which capitalism survives, i.e. sexism, racism, classism, heterosexism, etc. Capitalism is inherently hierarchical. In order for it to prosper there must be a higher class, which reaps its rewards (money, power), and a lower class that labors for very little pay and supports the higher class, thereby allowing its existence. They do not address the class divisions or the ways in which sexism segregates women into the lower classes, because as men, they are not affected by it. Women are trapped in low paying lower class work and unpaid household labor. Raising a family, cooking, and cleaning remain unpaid labors that fall into the category of “women’s work,” but if you were to clean someone else’s house, cook someone else’s dinner, and watch someone else’s kids you would be paid at least minimum wage. Doing these things for people in your immediate family and your own house are expected of women. In today’s society women, especially women of color and single mothers are the poorest in the nation. It has been that way for too long. Society as we know it was born off the unpaid labor of women and people of color. Amerika was built off our backs, with our tears and our blood. There will be no revolution without the destruction of the white male supremist power structure. As long as one group is defined as normal (white straight middle-class men), and another group is defined as other (women, people of color, homosexuals) there will be no free society. These very oppressive structures are mirrored in the radical groups of today, thereby making it so that there will never truly be the much needed fundamental change.

“We’ll deal with [sexism] after the revolution.” This is an actual statement that was once made to me, but it has also been communicated in much subtler ways. As mentioned before, when men in activist groups who abuse and eventually chase women away from the groups are allowed to remain we are in effect saying that women are unimportant. Our cause is more important than the rampant misogyny in our ranks. We are too busy to deal with you, because you, woman, are not important. We, men, decide what is important, because we, men, are human. You are not. Women in these groups are always asking why there are so few people of color in them. The men pay this some lip service, but ultimately do nothing. They seem to think that if the question is posed then they are effectively working on diversity. It’s acceptable to be openly sexist, but it is taboo to seem racist. No question is asked about the lack of women, however. It is simply not a matter of diversity if there are few to no women; it simply becomes a group that women do not want to join. The men in these groups have many different reasons why they think women do not want to join; sexism is not one of them. No one cares why women do not want to join, or why they leave one after the other. They have many excuses for why women do not want to join these groups that are based on the sexist beliefs in women’s inferiority. Some of these beliefs include the fact that activism is confrontational; it is risky, intense, and laden with pressure. Women are not able to be confrontational or be strong enough to participate in these groups in the long run, since we are weaker and have been taught to avoid confrontation and to be nice. Another argument that may be seen is that women don’t fully comprehend the issues, rather we are stupid and superficial, and cannot see how vital the issues are to our fight. These blatantly sexist thoughts about women are ingrained into our society, and the people who are trying to change our society don’t seem to feel like these issues need to be changed. In the cases I have mentioned of the predatory sexist men, the group thinks that when the woman leaves it was because she was being oversensitive. What happened in reality is that she was being treated as subhuman, got fed up, tried to stand up for herself, get support from the radical group, and was ignored or attacked. No one would listen to her. No one would help her. Those were personal issues between her and the man. They are never seen as group issues; even when the same scenario is played out over and over with the same man and different women.

In various leftist/anarchist groups women are welcomed, but it becomes apparent right away that they are not welcomed for their ideas, plans, and actions. When they have a good idea it is usually overlooked until a man stands up and says the exact same thing, which is when it becomes a brilliant idea. In many instances the men don’t even wait long to re-present the woman’s idea as their own. It usually occurs less then five minutes after the woman originally presented the idea. This is not the only time when our voices and actions are ignored; when women put their bodies on the line at various protests or actions their voices are not only ignored by the media, but silenced by the all too eager self elected male spokesman who feels justified, because he believes that he has all knowledge and authority about whatever campaign they are working on. He feels that men, especially himself, are the natural leaders of such groups, being more knowledgeable, and therefore should be the ones speaking to the public. With all of the egotism, male self-aggrandizement, and sexism, it is not surprising that the absence of women in these groups goes on unnoticed; our contributions go by unacknowledged. Radical women should stand up and fight this. We should not stand aside while our voices are silenced. In the leftist/anarchist scope equality is certainly spoken about, but the actions by these groups continue to prove that women are still valued less then men. Or, as commonly seen in greater society, we are valued for our sex, not our voices.

It is not surprising, therefore, that both the first and second waves of Amerikan feminism have been born out of social activist movements. The first, the women’s suffrage movement, was born out of the abolitionist movement. When women realized that their voices were not being heard, because they were female voices, and that the fight to free the slaves and give them rights only in actuality meant freedom and rights for black men, not women, they got fed up and organized. They realized that political and social equality was a much larger issue then abolition alone. These women still continued to fight in the abolitionist movement because they understood that gaining freedom and rights for the slaves was integral to gaining their freedom as women. The second wave occurred after the Civil Rights movement, where women were assigned such menial, sex-specific tasks as fetching coffee, filing, and answering phones. They were glorified unpaid secretaries. Soon after came the anti-Vietnam War movement in which women’s roles were likewise segregated, but during the anti-war movement they were also faced with the so-called revolution in which they were expected to make themselves sexually available for the men they were working alongside. A good example of this is the anti-war propaganda poster that says “Girls say yes to boys who say no.” Before the mass realization of the left’s exploitation of women’s bodies, the second wave, women were only included in organizations for their sex. A similar consciousness raising is necessary now. We need to realize what women in the ‘70s realized: Men only value us for our sex and historically defined women’s work. Women prove daily, and especially in large-scale social movements, that we will put other people’s rights and needs above our own. It’s sad to think that all these brilliant women were abused for years before they stood up and fought, and after all their hard work the same patterns are being repeated today. No longer should this be the case. We should be organizing now, in every group we work in, everyday of our lives. It is time for us to stop putting our basic right to be human aside. It is time we think about ourselves and about ending all oppression. We have surely waited long enough for this.

One cannot wait for things to get better; we can’t wait for revolution. People must struggle and organize. Women have been struggling for centuries, and we should not have to struggle anymore. We need to organize ourselves across the lines of race, age, religion, class, and country. We need to include transgender and intersex women. We all fall victim to the same oppression.

Today, Amerikan feminism is dominant. White, liberal, middle-class Amerikan feminism has become the standard by which Amerikan women judge all other forms of feminism. Liberal feminism is predominant in this country, because it has been made very accessible through organizations like the national chapter of NOW and publications like Ms. It is how we distinguish between “feminists” and “radical feminists.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines the term radical as “one who advocates fundamental or revolutionary change.” Radical feminists are women who advocate not compromising for anything short of basic human rights now. We want a fundamental change of the systems of power that control our world; we do not want small changes. We are not satisfied with small gains within the hierarchical system; we want the whole damn pie thrown out and a new one made. The revolution needs to be radicalized. We understand that other people’s freedom is integral to our own. We are the women who will not compromise; we are the women who take feminism “too far.” We are the women who will not settle until hierarchy is dismantled, and our words reflect that. The mainstream liberal groups may reach many women, but it is our job to then radicalize these women. Liberal women’s fight is closely related to radical women’s, as the loss of any rights we have gained in the past 90 years affects liberals as acutely as it affects radicals. Take for instance our reproductive rights. Both liberals and radicals fought for reproductive rights, and both would be hurt equally with the sudden loss of autonomy over our bodies. Even if we do not agree on everything, radical and liberal women need each other, and need to work together to abolish sexism. One of the problems faced by radical women, is that most people’s conception of radical feminism is that our thoughts and words are harsh, but they are in fact nothing short of the truth and should not be co-opted. Many radical feminists are not radical at all. We ask for complete equality, and some people are not comfortable with this because it means an overhaul of everything in society as it now stands. Capitalism and hierarchy, the means by which our society is run, are integral to our continued oppression, and one of the things that we have become accustomed to today. Fighting against those two fundamentals of society that we take for granted as normal is a large change, as it is the only version of society that we have ever known. It can be intimidating to fight against something that is so familiar to us. If we are committed to a society in which all people, including women, are equal, then we must push ourselves to work towards our goals, especially when we have to push our boundaries of comfort. We cannot allow our personal prejudices or our fear of change to interfere with our struggle. The changes we need to make are radical and may make some people uncomfortable at the beginning, but they are necessary to our freedom.

It is imperative that we listen to women who have different backgrounds than us, and hear what they’re saying in order to be able to work with women from all over. We must be willing to learn from women who face multiple forms of oppression, and who come from different countries and experience different forms of oppression then we do. This is part of acknowledging the dominance of Amerikan feminism. Those of us who are white have much to learn from those of us who aren’t. We must address our own personal racism, classism, heterosexism, transphobia, etc., in order in work with all women. Amerikan feminists, especially white ones, have privilege in relation to women from poorer countries. Those of us who do not know that ending all forms of oppression is the only way by which we will gain freedom as women need to learn this fact. Each form of oppression depends upon other forms of oppression to continue to work. It is impossible to get rid of one without the other. As long as hierarchy exists so will oppression. We must come to the table with open hearts and open minds, because no matter what our differences we share a common bond as women. We are oppressed as women and must unite as women, because if we leave any woman behind we will not get rid of sexism and patriarchy. Every woman must be free or else sexism will still exist, and our goal is for all women to be treated as human. If we discriminate because of someone’s race, religion, etc. we will imitate the behaviors of our oppressors. This does not give us freedom; it gives us more hierarchy and more oppression.

We cannot repeat the patterns of hierarchy and dominance in our society, or else things will never change. The so-called radical groups that do not address sexism are repeating these patterns. They perpetuate and encourage male dominance over women, and are not truly radical groups. They enforce hierarchy and dominance and then deny that they are doing so. We must NOT repeat this among ourselves. In working with many different women we must set an example of a truly nonhierarchical group. To do this we all must embrace other women’s ways of coping with oppression. What do any of us know to make us believe that our ways are the one true way with which to fight patriarchy? We cannot hold others up to our ideals of what feminism is. The ideal is the basic right to be human. Period. We cannot expect everyone to fight in the same manner, and we cannot exclude people because our attitudes and beliefs differ from theirs.

We are all fighting the same fight, and if we don’t include all women we will never see freedom, period. We are human. That’s our fight.

Women of all different backgrounds need to value our lives first. We need to stand up to this pattern of being valued for our bodies. By working in these sexist groups, we are not putting ourselves on the line in order to create a society any fairer to us then the one we already exist in. The patterns of polyamory in supposedly radical groups are evidence of how we are valued by the movement; we are still around to be fucked. We must raise our voices in opposition to this. We are worth more.

Radical sisters, we must learn that if men are not willing to make a stand for our basic right to be human, if they are not willing to put their bodies on the line as we do everyday for our basic right to autonomy, then they are not our allies in revolution. They DO NOT want to jeopardize their roles as the privileged gender class in our society. They DO NOT want to see us as human. This is something we must learn and remember no matter how radical the group in which we work, no matter what the nature of the campaign, or our beliefs. We must value ourselves at least as much as the causes we are working for, and understand that these campaigns will never succeed unless they take women’s issues into account. We must fight. This is a hard concept for women to learn and practice. We have been taught all our lives to value others before ourselves. Our mothers valued their children before themselves. Sometimes they valued their husbands and their “acceptable” family lives above themselves. In the cases of revolutionary women they valued abolition first, Civil Rights for African-American men first, ending the Vietnam War first, themselves last. We seem doomed to continue repeating this pattern. Enough is enough. We must organize within organizations. We must not let these men, whom we absurdly believe to be our allies in struggle contrary to their actions and our experiences, continue to value us purely for sex. We must define our own terms and forge our own path. We are activists; it is time we fought for ourselves.
[1] Washington State Department of Social and Health Services in conjunction with Planned Parenthood is currently offering the Take Charge Plan in which free annual exams and birth control is offered to low income women and men. This program will last until at least 2005 as it is a pilot program. It is open to ALL Washington State residents, regardless of age.


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