Does monogamy matter?
Who's saying what
“The time has come to think about queering the state.”
In a seminal essay written in 1994, queer theorist Lisa Duggan argued that what was needed in gay and lesbian politics was not aspiring to meet the liberal demands of the “same,” but to transform the ways in which sexual minorities could have their relationships valued and recognised. For Duggan, a “queer” project is committed to challenging oppressive sexual norms (i.e. homophobia), while refusing to have the terms of “proper” intimacy dictated by the state.
So why bring this up now?
With the push towards marriage equality (of which I have written extensively in support of), there has been a troubling tendency to consider marriage as the most virtuous institution of intimacy.
Moreover, the arrival of Monogamous Gay Australia (MGA) has generated significant debate about the role of monogamy in the domain of coupledom. As MGA note on their Facebook page:
“Monogamous Gay Australia (MGA) is a not-for-profit, support group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals that celebrates and promotes monogamous, loving and faithful gay relationships. We encourage singles to take a stand, beyond one night and hold out for the one. We support new couples in getting to know each other before intimacy.”
Let’s begin by asking a couple of questions. Are “loving”, “faithful” and “monogamous” synonymous terms? Who is “the one”? How do you differentiate between “knowing” someone and being “intimate” with them?
Interestingly, monogamy comes to occupy the hallmark of our romantic aspirations, despite the fact we usually only talk about it when it fails.
Some couples get married. Some couples get divorced. Some couples live in de facto relationships. Some couples who are married do not live together. Some couples, married or otherwise, are in “open” or polyamorous relationships. Some people avoid romantic or sexual relationships altogether.
Aside from being stylistically annoying, my repetitive use of the word “some” is deliberate to indicate that no fixed or universal standard exists to characterise intimate relationships.
Intimacy is a slippery thing. We can have profound emotional attachments to people we do not want to sleep with. We can have amazing sexual experiences with those we do not wish to be in a relationship with. Our intended one-night stand can end up being our life partner. Distinguishing between sexual, platonic, emotional, romantic intimacies in the pursuit of “getting to know” someone can be a futile exercise.
So how do we decide what form of intimacy to “hold out” on and when? Additionally, echoing the work of cultural theorist Lauren Berlant, what “love plot” do we subscribe to when mapping our intimate encounters?
According to MGA’s founder, Andy:
“Why do we have to buy into the whole scene thing? I’m no lipstick wearing drag queen, I don’t like shopping, but I do take forever in the bathroom to do my hair. Aren’t we all individuals who shouldn’t be typecast?”
Andy is right; no one should have to “buy” into the “scene” or be “typecast.” If we provisionally define a “scene” as a cultural space of belonging, who is to say there is only one? Given the disparate social positions of race, class, religion, identity, gender, age and so on, “gay scenes” can range from clubbing on Oxford Street to making Xena fan videos on YouTube.
Ironically, despite his desire to avoid stereotyping or the “scene,” MGA’s founder, Andy, conscripts monogamy as the key to the redemption of gay men. Goodbye Arq, hello domestic bliss. Specifically, he says, “It’s time to make a change. To grow up.”
Grow up from what? One night stands? Grindr? Mardi Gras? Single life? Open relationships?
I pose these questions to refute MGA’s claim that we are “worthy of monogamy.” Personally, I’d much rather we be worthy of respect and dignity. Equating monogamy with love and dignity seems to undercut the fact that many violent relationships are perfectly monogamous. After all, if we trace the historical demand for monogamy and virginity, we find it coercively hoisted upon women in order to further primogeniture – to allow patriarchs to ensure that children born to their wives genetically “belonged” (as property) to them.
For sexual and gender minorities, the recognition of our identities and intimacies has relied on contesting the assumption that heterosexuality and binary sex/gender is both natural and foundational to our sexual life. We said “no” to compulsory heterosexuality. Curiously, then, why do we now want to say “yes” to compulsory monogamy?
In order to commit to monogamy, MGA presents us with the task of joining the “gay reputation revolution.” Maybe it is just me, but I did not realise that gay men, as a group (as if such a category could ever be homogeous), needed a revolution of their “reputation.” Then again, I probably missed the latest circulation of the notorious gay agenda.
If I were to imagine a “gay revolution,” it would be a project about social justice, not social reputation. It would be one that challenges the fetish and exclusion of racial minorities. It would be willing to confront the ageism in our visions of community life. It would speak out against the stigma of sexual subcultures or people living with HIV. It would challenge the ableism present in a number of our social spaces. Those are the sorts of commitments we should hope to achieve.
Fighting homophobia should not mean making ourselves politically palatable to those who would otherwise stigmatise or discriminate against us. Revolution, as Duggan and Berlant would encourage, involves critically rethinking the ways we talk about our intimate personal-political lives.
Monogamy is neither better nor worse than any other relationship arrangement. Whether you want one spouse for life, practice polyamory, or remain single, the ethics of intimacy cannot be measured in quantitative terms. You only need to see the appalling instances of sexual violence in various romanticised “traditional” relationships to see why there is no inherent virtue in any one sort of intimate practice. What matters, more importantly, is the way ethics is practiced in the relationship(s) you are involved in.
MGA folks, like Andy, should feel free to live whatever life works for them. That said, we should open up to some critical reflection about the possibilities of intimacy and the “ideal” means of supporting erotic or romantic life. Who knows? The unexpected possibilities that come along may surprise, challenge, inform and/or satisfy us.
Follow him on Twitter: @senthorun