Monday, December 22, 2008

Polyamory and Patriarchy

In this third installment of the series, "What is Polyamory?" with Christian Matheis, we discuss how patriarchal culture affects the practice of polyamory.

There are many feminist criticisms of polygamy that are well known. Martha Nussbaum rehearses some of the issues in this piece. However, she asks, what exactly is wrong with plural marriage among consenting adults? Not much, she concludes. Some of the commentors suggest that what she is actually talking about is polyamory.

My colleague, Lani Roberts, has shared with me the following piece that offers a radical feminist critique of polyamory. The general lines of the argument follow the ideas of Catherine MacKinnon:

In a patriarchal culture, gender inequality is pervasive. Women are subordinated economically, politically, and socially to men. In such conditions, we cannot talk about women having the absolute freedom, the capacity, to choose how they want their lives to be. This is especially true in the case of sexual consent. MacKinnon makes the point in this 2006 interview:

"The assumption is that women can be unequal to men economically, socially, culturally, politically, and in religion, but the moment they have sexual interactions, they are free and equal. That's the assumption - and I think it ought to be thought about, and in particular what consent then means. It means acquiescence. It means passivity."

The critique in regard to polyamory (at least, heterosexual polyamory) is that, under conditions of patriarchy, women may seem agree to polyamorous relationships, but they have been conditioned all their lives to think of themselves as sexually available to men. A polyamorous set up is really to allow men to have sexual access to more and more women.

Christian does not deny the effects of patriarchy in all our relationships, but holds out polyamory as one possible way to chip away at patriarchy through its insistence on mutuality, communication, and autonomy. Is his position persuasive?

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