Polyamory as a Reserve Army of Care LaborBarucha Peller
*I am only going to talk about heterosexual relationships here. This is not meant to be a completed piece and is being published early per demand.Our sexuality is just as contingent to prevailing power dynamics and activity as is our gender itself. A sexual activity outside of the “traditional status-quo” does not necessitate that the sexuality is liberated simply because of the form it takes. “Unconventional” heterosexual relationships, particularly polyamory, can still be another site of potential exploitation rather than of automatic liberation by means of “freedom of choice”, and our sexual or gender liberation is not something salvageable within the “object” of a relationship- however “radical”, “unconventional”, or “sex positive” it may be. Neither is a relationship an object- it is a relation in which gender can be constructed through the degree of activity or exploitation, or even through cases of violence (another reason why “the personal is political”). This is not to say reciprocally that monogamy or marriage is better, but simply that polyamory is a differently packaged trend in a gendered relation, and that care, sexual, and emotional labor and gendered activity can persist in heterosexual polyamory to the same exploitative degree.
In this sense the location or form of the activity may change, yet the activity and relation itself remains the same and thus co-constructs gender around the activity involved in that relation. In polyamory, was has changed is the form in which certain activity and the potential male exploitation of that activity takes place- and here I want to make an argument of care labor (emotional and sexual and otherwise) being that activity.
Relationships are not objects that, depending on the formation, determines whether or not the relationship is “feminist”. Relationships are a social relation, one that necessarily falls within the paradigm of all other capitalist social relations, no matter what form it takes. Third wave feminism left us astray in thinking that sex positivist and “liberated” desires would free sexuality itself and thus female subjectivity from it’s relativity to dominant social relations- in this case, patriarchy. This is more than paper over the cracks; this is a mere reframing of the social implications of the same activity-care work. Pretending that polyamorous relationship itself were a liberating mechanism, simply because they don’t have a conventional framework for relating, has done a few things: in some cases it has provided men with immunity to womanize, in 29 many cases it provides men with a reserve army of care labor while giving them less impetus to be mutually responsive to the activity of the relationship, and so I would argue that there is potentially even less of a two-way mutual flow of care labor between men and women in polyamorous relationships. Beyond that, heterosexual polyamory, can at worst be a threat to sociability and solidarity between women.
Women on the market: Polyamory and “hedging”Someone recently in my life put his experience of polyamory into a phrase that amazingly illustrates the relation of care work and exploitation in polyamory, in which he called his participation in it as “emotional hedging”. After recovering from the initial shock that a man in the radical community would make such a blatant and unabashed analogy to his relationships with women in terms of market capitalism, I realized how depressingly accurate the idea is that men relate to women as commodities or pieces of investment on the market, rather than as subjective human beings. (Hedging is having insurance on an investment, and is in itself an investment, and so to hedge is to protect yourself against an investment going bad). Putting it in finance capitalist terms may actually be a sobering, if not disturbing, description of the subject-object relationship between men and women that in polyamory can be exacerbated in nothing more but a distinct way than in heterosexual monogamous relationships.
Speaking of heterosexual polyamory in terms of male hedging outlines the man as the investor and the woman as the laborer, i.e. hedging and care labor, which implies a capitalist versus a worker, interestingly enough. “Hedging” between women is socially violent, in that in further commodifies women and their care labor-in other words, what they have to offer to the man in question. Polyamory is a way that heterosexual men can “hedge”, or invest, in various women, to the degree that they want to, and benefit from the returns until the investment is no longer worthwhile. There are many things that can make the investment become less worthwhile -when women start to ask for something in return, or demand more emotional, social, or sexual accountability, or transparency, or care activity. The polyamorous hedge then becomes a shield against accountability, and a guarantee that there is other attention to exploit without having to really offer anything back. Should the return gain fail on one relationship, or should you be asked to be accountable for your actions with that woman, or invest more by caring more, you have created other relationships to fall back on and reap gains from. Hedging is utterly objectifying, exploitative, and violent.
Unfortunately, this is a common dynamic in what supposedly passes as polyamory in the political milieu. Traditionally we would call this behavior “womanizing”-engaging in multiple relationships with women in order to be gratified by the sexual or emotional attention without having to make a commitment to give anything back or be responsible to any women involved. Essentially, “using” women. But now, men can do this, and claim that they simply are “naturally” polyamorous, and that it is monogamy that is the traditional feudally exploitative dynamic.
As often happens, responsibility and empathy can be replaced by the care work of another relationship. If she demands that a male partner treat her better in some sense, or commit to her emotional or sexual well being, he has the option of not relating to her subjectivity (my experience in the relationship), and going to another woman for gratification. So a polyamorous relationship is not in of itself a liberating mechanism.
“Poly is the new gay”?I have in fact come across straight men that identify as “queer” because they participate in polyamorous relationships with women. Even the hetero men who participate in polyamory yet do not call themselves queer seem to think of themselves in participating in some sort of sexual liberation movement that connotes sexual freedom for “not-men”.
If being gay were determined purely by civil legality, then fine, go ahead and say that poly is the new gay. Otherwise, there is no material, political, or social basis for a collective identification with queerness just because some one has multiple sex partners. It seems that by claiming queerness through poly practices, one tries to diminish the structural power dynamics that play out in unconventional relationships, by using polyamory to identify themselves in a space outside of prevailing social relations. Neither is there a material basis for a collective identification under the banner of polyamory or “unconventional relationships”, unless one were to take the extremely liberal mentality that not being able to be recognized by the church or state as polyamorous provided that basis. In the same way that it is bizarre for those participating in heterosexual polyamory to identify themselves and their sexuality outside of patriarchal social relations and without the material benefits that such relationships afford men, or within a new social relation that supposedly liberates women despite the remaining social context, it is equally bizarre that being poly would take on the gesture towards a whole new category of sexuality or gender identification.
Calling polyamory the new gay is actually hetero-centric and homophobic. It says then that heterosexual monogamy is then the only and last outpost of a pure patriarchy in sexual relations, that the farther away you move the stake from not just heterosexuality but monogamy, the closer you are to a deconstructed sexuality, a gayness, as though gayness itself were simply a counter-positionality, and as though patriarchy has a fixed place in sexual relations. It diminishes the queer position to a flexibility that is a matter of a lifestyle choice rather than a real collective identity with material and social meanings and consequences.
Choosing men is not freedom from patriarchyThere seems to be some old school American consumerist sensibility in the way that people equate freedom with the availability of a variety of choices. Polyamory is that supposed freedom; “freedom” to choose multiple partners, “freedom” to fulfill multiple desires, “freedom” to emotionally and sexually commit to many people at once. The freedom to browse and choose multiple women at once and hedge and invest against other investments can be commodifying and consumerist.
But then, what about women having free choice of which man they want to spend the night with, or commit their energy to? The truth is, this is not liberating in of itself. It can be, but heterosexual women being able to choose between men does not necessitate freedom from patriarchy or from the man/woman relation. It is like being able to choose between two or three different jobs, as potential sites of exploitation.
This was the lament of women, who, when “liberated” from housework, found that waged labor was yet another site of exploitation.
Polyamory and sociability amongst womenThird wave feminism that perceives women’s sexual liberation in terms of polyamory can be exceedingly individualistic and in this sense, hardly feminist. Third wave feminism in this sense made feminist praxis about exercising individual desires, or even getting on an equal footing with men. A feminist praxis, however, that takes into account the class relation of gender, that recognizes women as commodities, applauds sociability amongst women at all costs.
An honest and sober assessment of polyamory would have to take into account the threat of sociability amongst women. While it may be true that men could sexually or emotionally reject one woman in the favor of a monogamous relationship with another, while “cheating” certainly occurs in monogamous relationships, in polyamorous relationships where men have more than one partner it is a common occurrence that women end up competing with each other for the little bit of attention or return on their care labor. This is not always the case, but it hesitates a militant praxis amongst women sharing male lovers-that their sociability remains intact-and is difficult if one of the women do not already have a feminist praxis.
In polyamory, women may have to work double time at their care labor to become more desirable than other women lovers. Perhaps they must be more sexually willful and open, more caring and sweet, sometimes more youthful and simultaneously mature, they must overall have a better performance in reproducing the man in the center in order to continue to earn their part of the attention or by worth the investment, since there is hedging and other investments placed against them.
Moreover, the struggle to get even basic emotional and sexual needs met from men is already an uphill battle for many women. Being “needy” is a sexist stereotype of women, and since there does not exist an actual social impetus for men to meet women’s needs, polyamory can make it all the more difficult for women demand that their needs be met. Rather than do the work to fulfill one woman’s needs in exchange for getting his needs met, a polyamorous man may simply drift to another lover.
And when needs aren’t being met, the excuse is that the polyamorous man is too emotionally or sexually dispersed, he is already not used to doing care labor, and suddenly he has to do his normal minimal amount of labor but now to maintain a few different relationships.
This can mean that not only are we working double-time in one relationship to compete with other women, but if we have multiple partners in poly relationships we must do this with other men too. Our care labor doubles, then quadruples. One could say that reciprocally this is the same for men. Yet men do not do care labor typically, they receive it.
Perceiving other women as a threat is not actually about jealousy or self-esteem. It is the consequence of historical and material processes, or the significance and value of our care labor. As commodities, women are poised to compete with each other. The further commodifying a relationship, the more this happens.