Unhitched: Another new book looks at alternatives to monogamy
Sorry I haven't posted in a while! I've been away for ten days at the Network for New Culture's Summer Camp East in the mountains of West Virginia, while the mail piled up and up.
And just like last year, I come back amazed and bedazzled by the New Culture techniques, values, and processes with which the 80 of us played and experimented, to find poly-related stuff piling up that ties right into what I just experienced.
The mainstream media, you may have noticed, are in a boomlet of flutter about the possibility of honest nonmonogamy in marriage although in an "old-culture" (i.e. mainstream) context. Often polyamory goes unmentioned and the writers seem unaware of it; the failings of conventional marriage occupy most of their attention. This trendlet seems to have been sparked by two things: the book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (which came out a year ago and is now just out in paperback), and the increasingly serious mainstream attention being given to Dan Savage and his influential value system. (Savage is an outspoken alt-sex and relationship writer and creator of the "It Gets Better" project.)
So why does this trend make me nervous?
Because I am increasingly convinced that you cannot overthrow one of your cultural assumptions successfully while leaving the rest of them unexamined and ignored. All pieces of a culture tie into one another. This is why the 1970s' open-marriage movement among ordinary middle-class couples is remembered largely for crashing and burning. This is also why polyamory thrives naturally in the New Culture world, and with unusually little disruptive drama, even though New Culture itself has nothing to do with whether one chooses to be monogamous, poly, or celibate.
Another book recently joined the mainstream trendlet: Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China, by Judith Stacey. This is from an interview with the author at Salon:
Scouring the globe for sex advice
Sociologist Judith Stacey spent over a decade searching for worldly wisdom on alternatives to monogamy.
By Tracy Clark-Flory
This is part of an ongoing Salon series of conversations about monogamy.
Whether in need of examples to bolster the fight for same-sex marriage or boost one's spirits in the face of disillusioning high-profile failures of monogamous marriage, one need only look to Judith Stacey.
The sociology professor at New York University is something of an expert on alternatives, having spent more than a decade studying everything from "monogamish" arrangements among gay men in California to polygamy in South Africa to nonmonogamous, matriarchal households in southwest China. The result is her fascinating book, Unhitched. It doesn't simply offer a mind-bending cross-cultural perspective -- you can find that in any Anthropology 101 textbook. Instead, Stacey uses her observations to underscore just out how stifling and unstable the Western romantic ideal of marital monogamy can be for some people, as well as the vast array of romantic arrangements that are already out there in the world.
She isn't recommending a break from tradition for everyone and, while she may have utopist leanings, she doesn't actually expect Americans to suddenly reject amorous restriction in favor of free love. She just wants people to be a little more honest, with themselves and their partners, about what they want and need -- regardless of whether that's a "Big Love"-esque arrangement or strict sexual exclusivity. In that sense, she falls right in line with Dan Savage who preached about the same ideal of romantic truthfulness in a much-talked-about piece in last weekend's New York Times Magazine....
I posed this question to Stephanie Coontz last week and now it's your turn: Why do we still believe in monogamy?
Stacy: Well, I think monogamy is a powerful ideal and it appeals to a lot of people. There are a lot of arguments in its favor, but it's obviously an ideal that's honored in the breach. A lot of people are afraid of the alternatives -- for many people, the notion is that if you give up that ideal then no one will make any commitments or no relationship will stay together. There's a strong cultural conviction about that, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Ultimately, it's an ideal that leads to its own undoing, because what's natural is human variation....
...I'll tell you about a very different society that I write about in my book, and that's the Mosuo people of southwestern China, an ethnic minority culture that does not insist on or value monogamy, nor does it care about biological paternity. It's a maternal extended family system in which adult children stay in the mother's extended family compound. They have "night visiting," there's no double standard of sexuality, men and women are each free to have as many or as few lovers as they wish. They can have exclusive long-term lovers, they can have multiple partners, they can be chaste, whatever. And all of the children that are born to the women belong to that family's household; the biological mothers and fathers don't live together. They don't have marriage, and the children are brought up by basically aunts, uncles and grandmothers.
In some ways that sounds like a utopia. What are the downsides to that sort of system?
Yeah, it does sound like a utopia to a lot of people. But it's not really a feasible system if you've got economic and geographic mobility. It depends on a collective family property system without a lot of change. As for downsides, they teach against sexual jealousy, but it doesn't mean sexual jealousy doesn't exist, and there are people for whom it doesn't fit well. I think any family system is better for some people than others. But this is one system that I personally think is better for a larger percentage of the people than a lot of others are.
...I do think we can learn a lot from that culture. One of the things that's interesting is that because you don't have marriage, you don't have divorce or singlehood or widowhood or orphans. Everyone has a family and family security. In a culture that is so divorce-prone, I think there is a lot to learn from being able to imagine different ways of providing childcare and stability.
It seems harder to challenge our notion of romantic love than monogamy.
Absolutely. As I've written in the book, it's curious that the notion of fidelity should come to mean sexual exclusivity when it's really about faithfulness. I think it should mean integrity....
...The argument against my position, one that I take seriously, is that without a template or background rules, you leave too much to negotiation and disagreements. I take it seriously, but I still think it's a better alternative to feel an obligation to be honest with yourself and honest with your partner.
Read the whole article (July 9, 2011).
And you can read parts of Unhitched itself.
Audio interview with Stacey on Wisconsin Public Radio (April 11, 2011).