Cake and Non-Monogamy

I may have been joking when I suggested on Mastodon that I was going to end all sessions  with the words “This is the Way” but I make no secret of the fact I am a huge Mandalorian fan. As I wrote here, the show explores masculinity and fatherhood in ways rarely seen, and is such a positive response to often toxic norms around masculinity. The third series looks at how we can become caught up in the performance, or procedures of something, and hold others to success, or failure, depending on their adherence to those procedures. This is the “only” way as it were. Pondering this led me to meander down the roads of how we do relationships, what makes them distinct, and important, and what bears more resemblance to a civil war over what end we open our boiled eggs at. (Gulivers travels, one of the precedents both for the cowboy serials Mandalorian takes so much inspiration from, and one of the distant ancestors of most modern sci-fi. 

I am very aware I write this as a white, non-binary relationship anarchist. None of us can be a purely disinterested observer, as Popper himself argued, the observer is themself part of the process. As an anti oppressive therapist I am also opposed to the concept of neutrality, as a myth perpetuated by those with the most power and privilege. I do have to acknowledge though that the following thoughts come from one particular perspective, and there will be things I have missed, just as Bo Katan misunderstood why the traditionalists always wore their masks.

One of the first issues I want to explore with regard to consensual non monogamy (cnm) aka polyamory (since this is the term most commonly used as an identity, as in people tend to describe themselves as polyam, and cnm is something you do) is tied up with power and privilege. Over the years, particularly when training therapists in working with gender, sexual and relationship diversity the whiteness of both the framing, and and discourse has made me increasingly uncomfortable. Polyamory, as the dominant form of cnm practised in the global north, is described as a globally minority relationship model – when in fact consensual non monogamy has been, and still is practised across the world in a number of cultures and societies. 

It is of course the fact that the imposition of monogamy was a huge tool of the colonial project and white supremacy. Indeed it was judged to be so important that nominally Christian colonisers ignored their own religious texts, with multiple prophets and holy men who were not monogamous, in order to enforce the Roman model of monogamy which became the dominant norm first in Europe, then in those parts of the world colonised by Europeans. Non monogamous relationship styles were deemed to be lesser, “barbarian” and “savage”. This is not a theological blog, but I think it’s worth noting the importance of the imposition of monogamy to those colonisers, even when those other non monogamous relationship styles resemble those of biblical heroes such as David or Jacob. White people were determined that only one form of relationship be given any space – and that was monogamy.

It is important to note here the one group who this did not apply to – Enslaved africans and their descendents in the US, monogamy was denied them, except in rare circumstances marriage was not allowed – and instead the family which whiteness supposedly championed was denied to them as another form of the various tortures which slavery involved. 

Race and monogamy, and attitudes to which forms of relationships count is almost always removed from discussions of cnm and yet is vital to understanding it. Across the world many cultures practise different forms of non monogamy. Polyamory is a subset which seems to take up a lot of space, because, I suspect, it is a subset which is largely practised by white people. In discussions of the margenlisiations people practising non monogamy face, I rarely hear discussion of the inability of muslims, and others who practise polygamy to marry. Instead we talk of how it’s unfair that polyamorus people can’t marry, and silence about all those other, largely non white, groups who also are denied marriage. I wish to make clear I think that these rights should not be limited to those who conform to the acceptable number of partners according to capitalist white supremacy, just as we campaigned for queer people to be able to marry, we should be campaigning for non monogamous people to be able to marry – but that must be all non monogamous people, not just those who fit the (ironically) white capitalist norms of relationships based on romantic love and sexual attraction. 

Which brings me to another issue which has been percolating through my tired brain. How do we define consensual non monogamy? The answer might seem obvious – you are monogamous, or not, according to the number of partners you have. However, if the definition is solely on the number of partners, then, in essence there is no difference between the two. One is simply accepting the normative idea that the most important thing about a  relationship is the number of people in that relationship – which is mononormativity to the core.

Imagine if the only type of cake you had ever seen was chocolate cake, and there was a huge industry built up around the production, sale and distribution of chocolate cake. Then one day someone opens a lemon drizzle cake shop – shocking with its lack of chocolate but still fundamentally a cake. Factions break out. The chocolate faction insists that cake without chocolate is no longer cake. The lemon faction demand the right to sell their cakes, but argue it is a completely different thing to chocolate cake, because it does not contain chocolate, even if they make their cakes with the same ingredients and processes, except for chocolates and lemons. The lemon drizzle faction is accepting the definition of their product, and at the same time saying it is completely different when it is not. 

Then imagine you like cookies – and wonder where on earth you might get some, as all anyone seems to talk about is cake, and the two varieties available seem pretty much identical to you, especially compared to a cookie. 

To the person who has only ever seen chocolate cake, lemon drizzle might seem a wild, unbelievable thing, they might deny it is even cake – but to the cookie monster, it’s just different ways of making a cake.

  • How can we do relationships differently?
  • Is it the case that by accepting the definition based on the number of partners we are tying ourselves to mononormativity, and all that entails?
  • If this is the case, how can we smash the false binary based on the number of partners?

Mononormativity decrees that we shall have one, primary, sexual and romantic relationship, with gender norms embedded in it. The twentieth century saw mononormativity dominate, particularly in the mass media, with Hollywood  pushing the myth of “the one” as the only acceptable, and successful relationship form (successful in that if you did not succeed in finding the one you had somehow failed at relationships). Other relationships, including friendships, which had previously been celebrated, were relegated to lesser than sexual and romantic ones. As Rubin’s charmed circle wonderfully diagrammed only those whose monogamous relationships were both sexual and romantic were considered charmed and successful. And as a student pointed out to me recently, blackness would leave them denied access to that circle, no matter how hard they tried to conform.

Conforming is of course itself a problematic word. Some people hope for the precarious safety it brings, others will never be judged to have conformed, due to circumstances outside their control such as race, religion or disability. The norms of white supremacy are so powerful that many people in different relationships fail to realise that they are still conforming, believing that lemon drizzle cake, by virtue of not being chocolate cake, is non conforming cake (and to the chocolate extremists they are probably right).

I feel as I write I am opening up more questions that I have answers to;

  • How do we revolutionise the how of relationships rather than accepting those norms?
  • How do we make space for those who don’t conform to the primacy of sexual and romantic relationships meaning you are winning – not just aro and ace people but people who choose to be single or prioritise friends.
  • What metrics can we use to determine what is, and isn’t a positive relationship, from an anti oppressive and decolonised stance? 
  • Perhaps most importantly, how do we challenge binary thinking based on what a relationship looks like and instead focus on how the people in that relationship feel and experience the relationship?

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