Issue:  Vol. 46 / No. 42 / 20 October 2016

Polymorphously perverse


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Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Polyqueer Sexualities by Mimi Schippers; NYU Press, $27

The good news is that in Beyond Monogamy, author Mimi Schippers has found a solution for racism and sexism in our society: polyamory, or sexual relationships with more than two people. Schippers, Associate Professor of Sociology and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Tulane University, also concludes that compulsory monogamy "as the only legitimate, natural, or desirable relationship form supports and legitimizes gender, race, and sexual inequalities and hierarchies," and prevents people from experiencing true bliss. She explores how mono-normativity is socially constructed (despite evolutionary anthropologists claiming monogamy is a genetic predisposition), seeing monogamy as enabling white heteromasculine privilege and superiority, skewering power relations and resulting in sexual stratification. Essentially, all sexual binarism is rejected, and real sexual freedom won't be achieved til monogamy is rejected. The bad news is that she has made a titillating subject into a bore by drowning it in headache-inducing academic jargon, with politically correct thinking dominating the narrative to stultifying effect.

The book begins promisingly with four "polyqueer sexuality" vignettes: a man and women in an open relationship, the woman having sex with the man's best friend; a black man in love with a beautiful, talented black woman, wanting to marry her but also enjoying a sexual relationship with his male best friend; a woman having a 12-year affair with a man not her husband, loving them both, with the husband eventually wanting to kill the other man; and a married man telling a friend he and his wife had a threesome with another woman but shuddering at the thought of a threesome with another guy, balking, "I'm not gay." Schippers analyzes variations of each of these non-monogamy scenarios, but concludes that each case will conclude in either the other relationship being destroyed with emotional trauma inflicted, or the monogamous couple being restored. She challenges the reader to view these stories from a polyamorous perspective that could result in different endings. Schippers develops a theoretical framework for cultivating polyqueer sexualities, "sexual and relationship intimacies that include more than two people and that, through plurality, open up possibilities to 'undo' race and gender hierarchies in ways that would not otherwise arise within the context of monogamy."

One of the frustrating aspects of this book is that Schippers, a straight woman in a poly relationship with two straight men, employs LGBT terminology ("non-monogamy as constituting a queer life") but uses it in a way to bolster her own heterosexual interests. She is rather critical of LGBT people who legally marry, serve in the military, or adopt children as assimilating into heteronormativity rather than critiquing these institutions, but correctly points out how such acceptance only succeeds if you look or act like normal (white, middle-class, gender-conforming and monogamous) heterosexuals. Also, bisexuality and transsexuality are flatly rejected as driving forces for unraveling the notions of fixed gender and sexual identities, replacing them with polyamory, which fits into her goal of reconfiguring gender and race relations. She sees one-man, two-women poly configurations as untenable, promoting heteronormativity and gender inequality: a straight man's nirvana. She favors one-woman, two-hetero-men relationships as the way "to disrupt the meanings and embodiment of racialized masculinities and feminities." She can be so rigid in her own dogma as to be unwittingly exclusionary. In addition to literary hard-core sex descriptions she uses explicit accounts of her own sexual experiences to bolster her academic arguments, and yes, it reads as icky (not sensual) as it sounds. There's no intellectual objectivity here.

Schippers offers the doubtful claim that polyamorists don't experience sexual jealousy but compersion (pleasure rather than anger when one's partner experiences gratification with another person) and cooperation as opposed to competition with other paramours – even an ethic of care and open communications with all partners she now terms metamours. There is no discussion of jealousy and competition, which seems overly idealistic. In LGBT circles, open relationships have a mixed success rate. What Schippers terms homosocial bonding between two straight men sharing a woman sounds more like friendship, especially when the two men are not having sex with each other. But she does raise some provocative issues. Might polyamory be another sexual classification like gay, transsexual, or bisexual? One area she alludes to but doesn't develop is the possibility of monogamous couples queering their relationships with polyqueer sensibilities. Schippers wants equality across the board for all partners, regardless of number, gender, class, or race. She is describing a sexual utopia, which may or may not be possible. Although Beyond Monogamy is mostly a letdown, Schippers has the courage to raise topics outside mainstream culture for discussion, even if her claim that polyamory could be the panacea to many of society's ills remains dubious.

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