Andrea Zanin: "The Problem with Polynormativity"
Andrea Zanin is a smart, perceptive queer sex educator based in Toronto, and her "Sex Geek" blog has earned its large readership. I don't often post about blogs as opposed to items in the wider media. But she has just put up an article significant enough to the community, and to people who read Polyamory in the News perhaps to the exclusion of other things, to merit an exception.
Several clues in her piece suggest that it comes in reaction to the Toronto Life magazine article currently on the newsstands in her city, which was the subject of my previous post day before yesterday.
The Problem with Polynormativity
Polyamory is getting a lot of airtime in the media these days. It’s quite remarkable, really, and it represents a major shift over the last five to ten years.
The problem — and it’s hardly surprising — is that the form of poly that’s getting by far the most airtime is the one that’s as similar to traditional monogamy as possible, because that’s the least threatening to the dominant social order.
Ten years ago, I think my position was a lot more live-and-let-live. You know, different strokes for different folks. I do poly my way, you do it your way, and we’re all doing something non-monogamous so we can consider ourselves to have something in common that’s different from the norm.... So we’re all in this together, right?
Today, though, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have much stronger Feelings about this. I mean Feelings of serious squick.... Feelings of genuine offense, not of comradeship. Fundamentally, I think we’re doing radically different things. The poly movement — if it can even be called that, which is debatable for a number of reasons — is beginning to fracture along precisely the same lines as the gay/lesbian/queer one has....
At its most basic, I’d say some people’s poly looks good to the mainstream, and some people’s doesn’t. The mainstream loves to think of itself as edgy, sexy and cool. The mainstream likes to co-opt whatever fresh trendy thing it can in order to convince itself that it’s doing something new and exciting.... The mainstream likes to do all this while erecting as many barriers as it can against real, fundamental value shifts that might topple the structure of How the World Works. In this case, that structure is the primacy of the couple.
The media present a clear set of poly norms, and overwhelmingly showcase people who speak about and practice polyamory within those norms. I’ll refer to this as polynormativity....
Here are the four norms that make up polynormativity as I see it.
1. Polyamory starts with a couple. ...With this norm, the whole premise of multiple relationships is narrowed down to what sounds, essentially, like a hobby that a traditionally committed pair of people decide to do together, like taking up ballroom dancing or learning to ski. So much for a radical re-thinking of human relationships....
2. Polyamory is hierarchical. ...Within this model, it’s completely normal to put one person’s feelings ahead of another’s as a matter of course.... And we think this is progressive?
This is precisely what gives rise to things like Franklin Veaux’s controversial (?!) proposed secondary bill of rights or a recent post that went viral outlining how to treat non-primary partners well (note how these are not mainstream media articles). These posts make me sick to my stomach. Not because there’s anything wrong with what they’re saying, but because — according to secondaries, who are exactly the people we should be listening to here — it means that a lot of polynormative people actually need to be told how not to treat other people like complete garbage. These posts are a crash course in basic human decency. That they are even remotely necessary, to say nothing of extremely popular, is really fucking disturbing.
...Let me clarify my position here just in case. There is nothing wrong with serious, long-term, committed domestic partnership. There is also nothing wrong with dating casually... I am not playing with semantics here. I’m talking about... treating real, live human beings.
3. Polyamory requires a lot of rules. ...Rules are implicitly set by the “primaries,” the “poly couple” — at least that’s how most discussions of rules are presented. Some books and websites will tell you (“you” presumably being someone who’s part of a currently-monogamous, about-to-be-poly couple) that it’s really super important not only to have rules, but also to set them out before you go out and do this polyamory thing. If ever you wanted confirmation of the very clearly secondary status of “secondary” partners, this is it: the rules get set before they even show up, and they have no say in ‘em. Again… we think this is progressive?
Here’s the thing. Rules have an inverse relationship to trust....
4. Polyamory is heterosexual(-ish). ...Also, cute and young and white.... If the mainstream media were to give too many column inches to LGBQ polyamory, then people might think poly is a gay thing, and that wouldn’t sell nearly as many magazines. So the typical polynormative hype article goes something like, “Meet Bob and Sue. They’re a poly couple. They’re primary partners and they date women together.”
...These articles are looking to present a fantasy of conventionally good-looking people having delightful transgressive (but not scary transgressive) sex while remaining as firmly within the boundaries of conventional couple-based relationship-building as humanly possible under the circumstances. That fantasy sells things. It does the rest of us no favours.
...This whole state of affairs screws over the newbies.... You can google “polyamory” and get a whole lot of nearly-identical polynormative hype articles, and you can meet up with locals who’ve read the same articles you just did, and you can all get together and do polynormative poly exactly the way the media told you to. And if that’s all you ever bother to do then essentially you are selling yourself short.
I feel the need to reiterate, one last time, that my problem here is with the polynormative model and the mainstream media’s insistence on it — not with a specific relationship structure or with any people who happen to practice it....
If you’d like to expand outside the polynormative model, I have some recommended reading for you. First, read Wendy-O Matik’s Redefining Our Relationships. Then, check out Deborah Anapol’s Polyamory in the 21st Century: Love and Intimacy with Multiple Partners. (I haven’t read it in full yet myself, but the excerpts I’ve seen lead me to believe Dr. Anapol has a lot of really wise shit to say about non-polynormative models, though I don’t think she uses that term specifically.) Spend some time reading Franklin Veaux. Read my 10 Rules for Happy Non-Monogamy. If you’re doing D/s or M/s relationships, read Raven Kaldera’s Power Circuits: Polyamory in a Power Dynamic (full disclosure: I contributed an essay to it). Look for information, ideas, works that challenge you to think hard, build your skills and stretch your heart.
Don't just read these fragments; go to her more cohesive whole article (Jan. 24, 2013). And the thoughtful comments that it's fast collecting say something about the quality of her readership.
Not all of them agree with her.