Against Compulsory (Non)Monogamy
The effect of the rise of polyamory and other forms of consensual nonmonogamy.
Posted December 2, 2018
Sociologists, philosophers, and anthropologists have long been interested in the power of social institutions to shape people’s thoughts and expectations. Two of the most powerful social institutions are heterosexuality and monogamy – both of which have undergone significant changes in the last 50 years. As part of my dissertation research on polyamory, in 2003 I tried to coin the term monocentrism to define the idea that contemporary US society is focused on monogamy as the social center of reality. My colleagues in the world of non-monogamy studies, however, found the term confusing and cumbersome so no one used it. Instead, they have adopted the term compulsory monogamy to describe this social mandate for monogamous romantic relationships. In this blog, I explore the idea of compulsory monogamy and the backlash against it in some social circles that I have come to think of as compulsory non-monogamy.
In 1980 Adrienne Rich[i] coined the term compulsory heterosexuality in which she critiqued the erasure of lesbians embedded in the concept that heterosexuality is the only real, legitimate, or moral way for people to be. Years later a group of scholars began to build on Rich’s original concept with their ideas about compulsory monogamy. Compulsory monogamy is the social mandate that everyone, and especially women, must be in a monogamous relationship in order to be considered a morally upstanding adult. As the root of polyphobia, compulsory monogamy is embedded in norms, laws, and institutions. Single people who do not want to be in any romantic relationship or non-monogamous people who want to be in multiple sexual relationships are punished for their failure to live up to social expectations of compulsory monogamy. Compulsory monogamy is an accurate comparison to compulsory heterosexuality because they are both institutionalized.
Among scholars writing on compulsory monogamy, Dr. Elizabeth Emens[ii] explored the ways in which mandates for monogamy are built in to not only social expectations but also laws in the United States, and Drs. Ani Richie and Meg John Barker explained the ways in which polyamorous women create new relationships outside of what they call “monogamy’s mandate.”[iii] This idea has moved from scholarly research to permeate discussions among regular people who are polyamorous, swingers, monogamish, or have open relationships.
Common to all of these discussions is the focus on the ways in which compulsory monogamy damages people who refuse to follow its mandates. People who avoid or fail to live up to the restrictions of compulsory monogamy can be fired from their jobs, evicted from their housing, ostracized from friend groups and families of origin, and lose custody of their children. While cheating and other forms of non-consensual infidelity do not tend to be as severely judged – especially for men because “boys will be boys” – engaging in openly conducted and negotiated non-monogamous relationships can mean significant social censure. In practice, compulsory monogamy is active in everything from legal proceedings to media scrutiny.
Conventional society looks down on people who engage in non-monogamy, even when they negotiate consensual multiple-partner relationships. In many subcultures of unconventional society, however, expectations have swung in the opposite direction. Among sex-positive folks, young exploratory people, queers of all sorts, and even some heterosexuals the rising popularity of consensual non-monogamy has made them compulsory for members of their subcultures. Just like compulsory monogamy makes life simply hellish for some people who are non-monogamous by orientation or proclivity, compulsory non-monogamy can make people who are monogamous by orientation or proclivity absolutely miserable.
Some of my relationship coaching clients report that they feel as if their specific society in their relationship and/or subculture mandates that everyone be open to non-monogamy. There is also a snarky tone in some poly folks and communities that look down on monogamous people for being too small, jealous, grasping, and un-evolved to be able to handle consensual non-monogamy. That combined social pressure and attitude of superiority can make non-monogamy seem compulsory for monogamous people in those social circles. Although it is not institutionalized in law and larger social norms the way that monogamy is, non-monogamy can still feel compulsory to people in these situations.
While there have always been outlets that make monogamy optional for wealthy, powerful, or sneaky men and the women who hook up with them, it has been far rarer for subcultures to assume that non-monogamy is the correct way to be. Gay men have the record on consistent consensual non-monogamy as a social norm, but it has rarely filtered into other portions of society in the way that it has come to dominate some social circles today. In fact, Dr. Amy Moors’s[iv] research on Google searches using the terms polyamory and open relationships indicates that public interest in these forms of consensual non-monogamy has surged in the last 10 years. Add to that the dramatic rise in media coverage from outlets like Cosmopolitan and Vogue to the Boston Globe and New York Magazine, it can seem like the whole world is considering non-monogamy. This can be terrifying for people who are monogamous by orientation or simply prefer monogamy because of its simplicity and the emotional safety they expect from it.
Lose the Compulsion
The reality is that neither monogamy nor non-monogamy works for everyone, and there is no single form of relationship that is truly a one-size-fits-all. Removing the compulsion from non-monogamy and monogamy can help everyone to calm down in this time of significant social change, which would enable people to form whatever kinds of consensual relationships that work best for them.
[i] Rich, A. (1980). Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence. Signs: Journal of women in culture and society, 5(4), 631-660.
[ii] Emens, E. F. (2004). Monogamy's Law: Compulsory Monogamy and Polyamorous Existence. NYU Rev. L. & Soc. Change, 29, 277.
[iii] Ritchie, A., & Barker, M. (2006). ‘There aren’t words for what we do or how we feel so we have to make them up’: Constructing polyamorous languages in a culture of compulsory monogamy. Sexualities, 9(5), 584-601.
[iv] Moors, A. C. (2017). Has the American public’s interest in information related to relationships beyond “the couple” increased over time? The Journal of Sex Research, 54(6), 677-684.
Rich, A. (1980). Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence. Signs: Journal of women in culture and society, 5(4), 631-660.
Emens, E. F. (2004). Manogamy's Law: Compulsory Monogamy and Polyamorous Existence. NYU Rev. L. & Soc. Change, 29, 277.
Ritchie, A., & Barker, M. (2006). ‘There aren’t words for what we do or how we feel so we have to make them up’: Constructing polyamorous languages in a culture of compulsory monogamy. Sexualities, 9(5), 584-601.
Moors, A. C. (2017). Has the American public’s interest in information related to relationships beyond “the couple” increased over time?. The Journal of Sex Research, 54(6), 677-684.