Tag Archives: monogamy

Freedom: rip it up

freedom

TRIGGER WARNING: sexual assault

A suburban comedy-drama, monumental in the way only a middle-aged, middle-class straight white American man would have the audacity to write. In this case, as in most, the monument does not yield the audacity it promises. Not even close. Here, the problem is not that the characters are simply unlikeable: they are dull, cliched, and not even believable. None of the truth, ugliness, attraction of most unlikeable characters in literature. The plot is a mess, but not a beautifully chaotic postmodern mess, simply a directionless, pointless collection of events nobody cares about. Franzen’s social realism is proudly middle-brow, what he seems to consider ambitious, without any sense that his execution of the mode is highly conventional. Yet even his realism isn’t believable: convenient events and plot holes abound. His language is trivial, ugly, too repetitive to justify six hundred-plus pages. The structure is fundamentally flawed, switching between the “autobiography” of one of the main characters, Patty, and the various viewpoints of three men, in a charade without function or finesse. If it was written by a woman, it would be read as a gossip column, dismissed as “chick lit,” hardly a Tolstoyan masterpiece of social realism. At the heart of this novel’s problem is its meanspiritedness; what Franzen sees as irony is slathered indiscriminately across the pages, the kind of sarcasm only a middle-aged white man can apply to everything that crosses his path, until the final pages when he seems to want us to care profoundly for his characters. Too late: the snow-love he wraps his ending up in is only sentimentality. In this vein, to read this book without being painfully aware of the almost unremitting misogyny is to inhabit the same world that Franzen does, the world that praises “Freedom” as a contender of the “Great American Novel.” A sexual assault early in the book is represented so gratuitously, so callously, with such a lack of understanding, that it undermines every attempt Franzen makes to cite this trauma as the “reason” for the myriad of Patty’s later issues. Women are described in terms of age, attractiveness, and pliability to men. Numerous references to men’s genitalia as cognisant conquerors and women’s as passive receptacles grow tiresome. Women and girls are the root of all of men’s problems. Later in the book, a rape fantasy is described lovingly. Every sarcastic pot-shot is a cheap shot: rather than being a sweeping, ambitious tome, it is an outdated triumph of the conventional, liberal, white, heterosexual American male in a world of (thankfully) splintering perspectives that offer far more interest and insight. But it is a high price to pay to realise, again, that the most worthwhile writing comes from women, people of colour, queers, all of us on the margins. If misogyny isn’t enough to turn a reader off this novel, let it be the presumptuousness of six hundred-plus pages of misplaced irony, directionless satire, complacent liberalism.

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The Use of Pleasure

foucaultuseofpleasure

How did sexuality acquire its relation to truth? (In construction alone). How a decipherment of the self by the self, how a hermeneutics of desire? How in the 21st century did sexuality come to signal a revelation of the soul as a realm of knowledge about the True Self, where the smallest pieces of desire must be examined and analysed? Ancient Greece, on the other hand, turns to sexual practices themselves, not as moral/immoral, but as moderation, self-mastery, the superiority of the free man and his need to exercise his birthright as active, as ruler. Boys are the most beautiful, women are in a political relationship of ruler/ruled. All a juridico-moral codification of acts, arts of existence, regimen – for “free” men only.

Feminism is for Everybody: A Choice to Love (Part 2)

feminismisforeverybodyYou are mistaken if you think feminism is about women. It is about rethinking gender in a way that unravels patriarchy, which instils ideologies of masculinity that are about domination and violence.

Necessarily, this means we must rethink relationships and family. This is what scares conservatives most, why they cry “political correctness” at any critique of gender stereotypes. Undermining gender necessarily undermines the family.

nuclearfamAs hooks shows, “A utopian vision of the patriarchal family remains intact despite all the evidence which proves that the well-being of children is no more secure in the dysfunctional male-headed household than in the dysfunctional female-headed household. Children need to be raised in loving environments. Whenever domination is present love is lacking.”nuclearfamily

Feminism has always been concerned with such relationships. As hooks traces the concerns of second wave feminism in relation to marriage and partnership, she mentions that many feminists “saw sexual monogamy with men as reinforcing the idea that the female body was property belonging to the individual male she was bonded with. We chose non-monogamous relationships and often refused to marry. We believed living with a male partner without state-sanctioned marriage within patriarchal society helped men maintain a healthy respect for female autonomy. Feminists advocated demanding an end to sexual slavery and called attention to the prevalence of marital rape while at the same time championing the rights of women to express sexual desire, initiate sexual interaction, and be sexually fulfilled.”

Ininstitution a society in which marriage, romance, partnership and intimacy have been structured and defined by patriarchal assumptions, how can we reenvision them as feminist? Is it impossible? Certainly we must always be critical of marriage, monogamy and family units. Then again we must also be critical of polyamory, the fight for marriage equality, and the so-called “non-traditional family.” The problems faced by second wave feminists in their own lives forces us to never let our guard down. For example, is it possible for marriage to be a viable feminist option given the huge, undeniable patriarchal legacy of the institution? It remains as such today.

The discussion sparked by second wave feminism about sexuality remains with us today, though it is still fraught. As hooks advises, “While men must let go of the sexist assumption that female sexuality exists to serve and satisfy their needs, many women must also let go a monogamyfixation on penetration.” This is why feminism is intertwined with ideas of sexuality as much as with race, class, religion, and age. Feminism cannot be heteronormative, it must be queer. Because patriarchy has rested on heteronormativty. But today we still assume that heterosexuality is natural, and that sexual “orientations” are genetic, inborn, fixed, and markers of our identity. Until we let go of this, we can’t reach a feminist sexual politic.

While hooks doesn’t yet articulate this, she does recognise the centrality of heteronormativity to patriarchy: “Masses of heterosexual women remain unable to let go the sexist assumption that their sexuality must always be sought after by men to have meaning and value. To do so they must believe that same-sex sexual encounters, self-pleasuring, and celibacy are as vital and life-enhancing as sexual intercourse with men within patriarchal culture.”cosmomagWe see the truth of the second wave’s realisation that “women would only be truly sexually liberated when we arrived at a place where we could see ourselves as having sexual value and agency irrespective of whether or not we were the objects of male desire.”malegazeWe still live in the world hooks describes here: “We will never know how many millions of women stay in relationships with dominating sexist males simply because they cannot imagine a life where they can be happy without men, whether they are satisfied sexually and emotionally with the men in their life or not. If any female feels she needs anything beyond herself to legitimate and validate her existence, she is already giving away her power to be self-defining, her agency. Lesbian women inspired me from childhood on to claim the space of my own self-definition.”

This is why queer women are vital in “representing” feminism to the mainstream. After all, “this is the special wisdom radical lesbian thinkers brought to the feminist movement. Even if there were exceptional straight women who theoretically understood that one could be utterly fulfilled without the approval of men, without male erotic affirmation, they did not bring to the movement the lived experience of this belief.”

Unfortunately, with the white-washed, straight-washed feminism in the mainstream eye, such truths are swept under the carpet. Today, given the length of time since the radicalism of the second wave that broman feeding womanught feminism to the mainstream, we have forgotten how these women dealt with sexuality and relationality in a patriarchal world. Hooks recalls that, “In the early stages of feminist movement we used the phrase ‘woman-identified woman’ or ‘man-identified woman’ to distinguish between those activists who did not choose lesbianism but who did choose to be woman-identified, meaning their ontological existence did not depend on male affirmation. Male-identified females were those who dropped feminist principles in a flash if they interfered with romantic heterosexual concerns. They were the females who also supported men more than woman, who could always see things from the male perspective.”

Internalised misogyny and girl hate abound today, to the extent that many think that jealousy is an inborn trait of women and friendships between women. How are we supposed to enact feminism in such a context? Unfortunately, hooks’ observation remains true: “The vast majority of straight women, whether they were actively feminist or not, were more concerned about their relationships with men.

Hooks showholding-handss us what a queer feminism looks like, and why it is for all: “In a world where positive expressions of sexual longing connect us we will all be free to choose those sexual practices which affirm and nurture our growth. Those practices may range from choosing promiscuity or celibacy, from embracing one specific sexual identity and preference or choosing a roaming unchartered desire that is kindled only by interaction and engagement with specific individuals with whom we feel the spark of erotic recognition no matter their sex, race, class, or even their sexual preference.”

Most people’s aversion to this shows how ingrained a patriarchal heteronormativty is within us. Because of this overwhelming power, we struggle to envision intersectionality. Feminism becomes one thing: equality with men. But such a notion is incomprehensible unless we first examine the terms of that “equality.” So, “Women who claim to be feminist while perpetuating homophobia are as misguided and hypocritical as those who want sisterhood while holding on to white supremacist thought.”

Embracing a watered down, palatable version of feminism is easy. Heteronormativity is embedded in everything we hold dear, especially romance, that foundation of so many films, songs, books, and life dreams. But, as the second wave articulated, “female freedom could only happen if women let go their attachment to romantic love.”

nuclearfamilyHard to swallow? Maybe, but ultimately liberating. After all:

Romantic love as most people understand it in patriarchal culture makes one unaware, renders one powerless and out of control. Feminist thinkers called attention to the way this notion of love served the interests of patriarchal men and women. It supported the notion that one could do anything in the name of love: beat people, restrict their movements, even kill them and call it a ‘crime of passion,’ plead, ‘I loved her so much I had to kill her.’ Love in patriarchal culture was linked to notions of possession, to paradigms of domination and submission wherein it was assumed one person would give love and another person receive it. Within the patriarchy heterosexist bonds were formed on the basis that women being the gender in touch with caring emotions would give men love, and in return men, being in touch with power and aggression, would provide and protect.”jealousy-love-vanessa-zac-Favim.com-572124This is so uncomfortable because patriarchal romantic love is what we think of as love, how we define love, it is something natural. It is difficult to think of it as socially constructed. And yet the work of feminism has shown us that it is constructed, and for a specific purpose, and that it is damaging.

jealousyloveHooks offers as alternative vision: “When we accept that true love is rooted in recognition and acceptance, that love combines acknowledgement, care, responsibility, commitment, and possessionknowledge, we understand there can be no love without justice. With that awareness comes the understanding that love has the power to transform us, giving us the strength to oppose domination. To choose feminist politics, then, is a choice to love.”

Why then would most people prefer the anti-feminist heterosexist dominating versions of romantic love we are fed every day?

It stems from a misunderstanding of the visionary nature of feminism, how it has beamed a light on our most taken-for-granted ideas. As hooks argues, this is partly because “one of the difficulties we faced spreading the word about feminism is that anything having to do with the female gender is seen as covering feminist ground even if it does not contain a feminist perspective. We do have radio shows and a few television shows that highlight gender issues, but that is not the same as highlighting feminism.”bitchmedia

On a sidenote, I would recommend the bitch media podcast, which certainly does contain a feminist perspective.

Feminism isn’t just about women, just as everything about women isn’t feminist. Hooks recommends “a collective door-to-door effort to spread the message of feminism,…to start again with the basic premise that feminist politics is necessarily radical.” That includes all these self-declared feminists in the public eye. “Confusion about this inherent radicalism emerged as feminist activists moved away from challenging sexism in all its manifestations and focused solely on reforms.”

Until we end the neverending defences of “feminism doesn’t mean hating men!” we won’t understand the true meaning of the movement. For everybody who has ever been caught in a debate going nowhere with someone who has never educated themselves about feminism but has expected to gain all they need to know from a mainstream mass media which is necessarily patriarchal, here is the book you can hand over.

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Lost and unspeakable: dreaming queer utopia

quutopiaIn my lit theory class, discussing José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, I listened to the sort of defences of heteronormativity and marriage that I thought didn’t exist anymore among twenty-somethings, at least those who have just read maybe one of the greatest pieces of queer theory ever written. “I think marriage is important because it validates a relationship between two people. It gives state approval, it tells society your relationship is real.” “But what if Muñoz’s vision comes true in the future? Will what we call heteronormativity now become queer? What if straight people and marriage and children become the minority?” “Muñoz wants us all to be able to touch each other. But I don’t like touching people.” Admittedly, the question “What’s the opposite of queer? Boring?” has a certain truth to it, but I was still scared. All this only convinced me even more of the truth of Muñoz’s rejection of 21st century LGBT pragmatism that focuses on marriage equality and assimilation into the neoliberal capitalist nation state. Since when have such goals been classified as “queer”? militaryMuñoz died too soon in 2014, and we lost many things, but we still have all these radical possibilities he set down. Muñoz wants to reclaim queerness. In light of the above responses, maybe this is a more ambitious dream than he realised. We seem to have lost all understanding of queerness. It is radical, deliberately unclear, non-conformist, non-binary, a rejection of all the borders heteronormativity has set in place. munoz                        IMG_4361 For Muñoz, too, “Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality. Put another way, we are not yet queer. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.” Queerness must be theorised, because we must theorise a way out of heteronormativity. Only then will we find a way out of patriarchy and a binary gender system that loves nothing but borders and definitions. This is why queer does not mean LGBT. Or LGBTQIA. While those identities have been politically useful, they are not radical. They do not recognise the politics of desire, that rather than being natural or located in genes, it is fluid. not-gay-as-in-happySo, when we learn to see queerness we see that it is “a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present. The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalising rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there.” The pragmatism of the LGBT agenda does not allow it to think of this future. It wants to be included in heteronormativity. Marriage, the family, the military, the mainstream patriarchal institutions that hold a certain way of relating to others as “normal.” Obviously marriage should be open to all. But rewinding a little, we should ask ourselves why marriage is the end goal. Is it really to know that the state sanctions our relationship? Why do we feel the need for that? Can we imagine a more radical utopia? AssimilatedAfter all, a “claim to the pragmatic is the product of a short-sighted here that fails to include anything but an entitled and privileged world. The there of queer utopia cannot simply be that of the faltering yet still influential nation-state.” The desire for marriage is just that – a desire. We cannot pretend it is natural, a biological consequence of genetic monogamy. Our desires are political. Judith Butler’s essay “Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?” is one of the best expressions of how we can queer the gay marriage debate that I’ve ever read. Finally I understand the real political and relational implications of prizing marriage as an institution. marriageequFor Butler, we must ask “what forms of relationship ought to be legitimated by the state. The crisis of legitimation can be considered from a number of perspectives, but let us consider for the moment the ambivalent gift that legitimation can become. To be legitimated by the state is to enter into the terms of legitimation offered there and to find that one’s public and recognisable sense of personhood is fundamentally dependent on the lexicon of that legitimation.” And, scarily, the actual debate shuts down the kind of possibilities that queerness sees on the horizon. “Here a certain normative crisis ensues. On the one hand, it is important to mark how the field of intelligible and speakable sexuality is circumscribed so that we can see how options outside of marriage are becoming foreclosed as unthinkable, and how the terms of thinkability are enforced by the narrow debates over who and what will be included in the norm.” marriageI hope you are sufficiently frightened by now. But don’t worry, Butler has some (not uncommon) words of comfort. “On the other hand, there is always the possibility of savouring the status of unthinkability, if it is a status, as the most critical, the most radical, the most valuable. As the sexually unrepresentable, such sexual possibilities can figure the sublime within the contemporary field of sexuality, a site of pure resistance, a site uncoopted by normativity. But how does one think politics from such a site of unrepresentability?” I think this is Muñoz’s project. And he manages to represent it in the most hopeful, colourful way we could ask for in this conservative time. He does it by savouring that unthinkability, using the fluidity, sensuousness and playfulness that he wants for his queer utopia. Queerness undermines all our ideas of relationality, intimacy, what desires we classify as important. For Muñoz queerness is an “impulse that we see in everyday life. This impulse is to be glimpsed as something that is extra to the everyday transaction of heteronormative capitalism.” It is uncontained. A “stepping out of the linearity of straight time.” It is joyful, because tied up with all the rainbow of emotions: sadness, happiness, despair, anger, excitement. “Queerness’s ecstatic and horizontal temporality is a path and a movement to a greater openness to the world.” For me, Muñoz’s idea that queerness is on the horizon, a utopian dream, something nostalgic but also hopeful, is about kindness. It’s about greater affective awareness. That is a weird made up phrase, but I think I mean being more aware of our emotions, their flow into and out of other people and the physical world surrounding us. In patriarchal heteronormativity, relationships designated as romantic, sexual and monogamous have always been about power. Queerness lets us hope for greater kindness, because greater fluidity. Kate Millett (in “Sexual Politics“) analyses Norman Mailer’s misogyny as a result of his belief that relationships are like war: “As the formula of ‘fucking as conquest’ holds true, the conquest is not only over the female, but over the male’s own fears for his masculinity, his courage, his dominance, the test of erection. To fail at any enterprise is to become female, defeated by the lurking treachery of Freudian bisexuality, the feminine in a man giving out like a trick knee at a track meet. Since all this is so arduous, men are, Mailer believes, self-evidently entitled to victory, their ‘existential assertion.’ Reminding his teammates that ‘nobody was born a man’ Mailer lays down the regulations – ‘you earned your manhood, provided you were good enough, bold enough.’” noteveryboyIf, as queerness lets us hope for, our identities are not tied up with gender, with proving at every step our masculinity, or our femininity, then our relationships are no longer about power. We can forget. We can be free. But Norman Mailer also recognised that this is a frightening prospect. What do we do once all our ideas of “normal,” so tied up with gender and heternormativity, are undone? The utopia becomes a nightmare, because our identities no longer have a familiar fixed point. Millett describes this nightmare: “The real abyss which portentous phrases such as ‘existential dread’ were invented to mask is the fear of nonexistence. That, or the secret terror of homosexuality; a mixture of sin, fascination, and fear which drives Mailer to his heterosexual posturing. To be faggot, damned, leprous – to cease to be virile were either to cease to be – or to become the most grotesque form of feminine inferiority – queer.” But why is this new mode of desiring so inferior? Because: “In a climate of sexual counterrevolution, homosexuality constitutes the mortal offense against heterosexual orthodoxy, the unforgivable sin that sends one off irreparably in the vast grey fields of virility’s damned.”existential-crisis

Butler put this nightmare in a way that still rings true in 2014: “Many people feel that who they are as egos in the world, whatever imaginary centres they have, would be radically dissolved were they to engage in homosexual relations. They would rather die than engage in homosexual relations. For these people homosexuality represents the prospect of the psychotic dissolution of the subject.”

Heteronormativity barely allows us to think outside of its barriers. Though it allows for “alternative” identities – LGBT identities – these must be outside a heterosexual “centre.” They must also be containable. In no way may the fluidity that queerness promises be allowed to dissolve this centre and mix up our relationships like spreading ink. That would be psychotic dissolution. inkwaterIf heteronormativity says something must be one thing or the other, queerness says no, it can be both or neither. Hope and loss can be here at once. “We can understand queerness itself as being filled with the intention to be lost. Queerness is illegible and therefore lost in relation to the straight minds’ mapping of space. Queerness is lost in space or lost in relation to the space of heteronormativity.” For anyone who has felt the strictures of heteronormativity as painful, this is solace. Yes, it’s something like pride: “To accept loss the way in which one’s queerness will always render one lost to a world of heterosexual imperatives, codes, and laws. To accept loss is to accept queerness – or more accurately, to accept the loss of heteronormativity, authorisation, and entitlement.” You are lost, but this is why you are able to hope. This is why queerness is not related to your “object of desire” and especially not the gender of that object. It is instead a mode of desiring and a refusal to be mapped by heteronormativity’s instruments.dorothy “Being lost, in this particular queer sense, is to relinquish one’s role (and subsequent privilege) in the heteronormative order. The dispossessed are appropriately adept at critiquing possession as illogical. To accept the way in which one is lost is to be also found and not found in a particularly queer fashion.” It is tempting to want to be included. Sometimes it is even necessary. Especially when the alternative is the worst consequences of social exclusion – institutional discrimination, violence and death. That’s why queer utopia must be on the horizon for everyone. That instead of the heteronormative dictate that inclusion be on “our” terms, there must be no terms. Millett puts the lack of awareness that comes from desiring normativity – that is, outsiders’ longing for inclusion within heteronormativity – very bluntly: “Oppression creates a psychology in the oppressed. Marxism, though adroit at analysing the economic and political situation of such persons, has often neglected, perhaps out of nervous dismay, to notice how thoroughly the oppressed are corrupted by their situation, how deeply they envy and admire their masters, how utterly they are polluted by their ideas and values, nofuturehow even their attitude toward themselves is dictated by those who own them.” Queerness denies such ownership. Muñoz again dismisses pragmatism by declaring that “political hope fails queers because, like signification, it was not originally made for us. It resonates only on the level of reproductive futurity.” Here he refers to the fact that all political discourse and our ideas of the future are centred on the child – that symbolic force of heteronormativity. Muñoz works with the idea of that uncompromising queer theorist Lee Edelman who attacks the symbol of the child: “Edelman recommends that queers give up hope and embrace a certain negation endemic to our abjection within the symbolic. What we get, in exchange for giving up on futurity, abandoning politics and hope, is a certain jouissance that at once defines and negates us. Edelman’s psychoanalytic optic reveals that the social is inoperable for the always already shattered queer subject.” Depressing? Maybe. But as Millett celebrates in her description of a drag queen, queerness, by refusing all standards of normativity, can show us a horizon unclouded by the anxiety inherent in gender norms, in the protection of the “normal” family, and in the desperation of “living through” our children:

queer“But as she minces along a street in the Village, the storm of outrage an insouciant queen in drag may call down is due to the fact that she is both masculine and feminine at once – or male, but feminine. She has made gender identity more than frighteningly easy to lose, she has questioned its reality at a time when it has attained the status of a moral absolute and a social imperative. She has defied it and actually suggested its negation.”

Being lost isn’t always a bad thing. Confusing people, even causing psychotic dissolution, which may last only a second before someone re-establishes their limits of normativity by casting you as deviant, can be enjoyable. This is the utopian possibility of negation. But of course this must be conscious. After all, as Muñoz puts it, “heteronormative culture makes queers think that both the past and the future do not belong to them.” In spite of this exclusion, we can create. “A nothing is a utopian act insofar as it acknowledges a lack that is normalised as reality and attempts to work with and through nothingness and ephemerality: it is both a critique and an additive or reparative gesture. Queer utopian practice is about “building” and “doing” in response to that status of nothing assigned to us by the heteronormative world.” queertopiaThis is a conscious way of creating the world through a conscious being in the world. Knowing that being in the world is not just heteronormativity’s linear time, romance, monogamy, appropriate feelings, acceptable gestures. A queer mode of being in the world is a fuller experience of relationality. Get ready for the accusations of irresponsibility, childishness, lack of commitment, all the insults pegged at those who don’t wish to comply with heteronormativity. Because, as Muñoz says, such behaviour is often seen as pointless rebellion, without political motive. But “escape itself need not be a surrender, but, instead, may be more like a refusal of a dominant order and its systemic violence.” Muñoz tells us that utopia is about hope and failure together. “Hope and disappointment operate within a dialectical tension in this notion of queer utopia. Queerness’s failure is temporal and, from this project’s perspective, potentially utopian, and inasmuch as it does not queerutopiasadhere to straight time, interrupting its protocols, it can be an avant-garde practice that interrupts the here and now. To perform such interruptions is not glorious or heroic work.” Well, that’s a disappointment. How can we refuse heteronormativity and take on all the backlash that comes with such a choice, if we don’t even have the comfort of knowing we are heroines? More of the disappointment of utopia, I suppose. But is has to be conscious, because of the pure difficulty. I have so much internalised heteronormativity that I need to remind myself daily what queerness is. But Muñoz gives us more hope. Queerness isn’t just intellectual knowledge, a way to critically encounter situations. It’s that way of being in the world. It’s embodied. It’s relational. It’s intimate. It’s here and now, future and past. That is, “We know time through the field of the affective, and affect is tightly bound to temporal.” It’s emotional. It’s ecstatic. For those of us who want to think a way out of heteronormativity without going down a path to existential dread, Muñoz has painted the horizon. This is the utopia of the not yet here, illuminated with the glitter of the past. rainbow

A Prison Cell Built for Two: Romance, Monogamy and Violence

perfectheteronormativityI know I could write pretty much what I want about patriarchy and heteronormativity. I’d have to get pretty radical before progressive people got upset. And yet to criticise monogamy? People who love attacking heteronormativity with me stop when I start on mononormativity. “Well, that’s okay isn’t it?” Aren’t romance and monogamy synonymous? Isn’t it how our society works best? Then – hold on, are you criticising my relationship? This tells me I’m getting something right.

Laura Kipnis points out that monogamy is “secured through routine interrogations (“Who was that on the phone, dear?”), surveillance, (“Do you think I didn’t notice how much time you spent talking to X at the reception?”), or impromptu search and seizure. We are taught that this is necessary, romantic, even natural. That each partner should be naturally jealous and overbearing of the other’s movements, words and thoughts. Why can’t we see this for what it is, controlling and often downright abusive?

rule206By falling for the trap that jealousy and efforts at control are “natural” (does that mean biologically determined?) we fail to see what’s really at stake. No, it’s not your relationship. It’s the social order. Again, thank you, Kipnis: “adultery puts things at risk: from the organisation of daily life to the very moral fabric of the nation.” This is why “cheaters” get called “immature,” “selfish,” “irresponsible.” It’s the language of what Kipnis calls “bad citizenship.”

When you start to see how institutionalised heterosexuality is built into the social order, you see the point of monogamy. These little units, neat little heterosexual couples, neat little nuclear families in their neat little houses, are the building blocks of capitalist society.

nuclearBut wait! How can something so beautiful as romance and love and commitment be subject to social forces? It’s destiny, it’s a force of nature.

Just look at the workplace vocabulary we use to describe monogamous relationships. There’s the oldest line in the book: “Marriage takes work.” We are asked to “show commitment,” or we may get criticised for “being scared of commitment.” We are advised to “compromise,” “negotiate,” “put in more time,” “be more accommodating.” If necessary, we should question whether the relationship is “worth saving” and if we shouldn’t just “cut our losses.”

workplacevocab

Isn’t this just a little scary? The language of business moves into intimacy. And yet, it’s not at all surprising if we see how heterosexual monogamy is always institutionalised, not the result of a “natural drive” but fundamental to the social order.

And yet apparently resistance is futile. Everywhere you turn there are heterosexual monogamous couples! Turn on the TV, there they are. Attend a family gathering, there they are. Walk into a café – still there! There would be no problem if there weren’t so many. It’s the overwhelming discursive power of heterosexual monogamy that is so damaging. You see a forty year old unmarried woman – first question: “Why isn’t she married?” You overhear the word “polyamory” and blush, or shake your head at the immaturity or downright immorality. A handsome young man always shows up to parties without a woman in his shadow – what’s going on? Must be gay.

couplesThe discourse of romance as meaning heterosexual monogamy is suffocating. Even more so, it includes the notion that all people should aim for it. My one life’s goal is apparently to meet a man, date, marry, buy house, reproduce, raise offspring, die.

Not a bad life script, but why the only acceptable one? Why the only one that is “built into my DNA”?

Okay, this is all well and good, but what’s truly wrong with this discourse? Why can’t we find a “partner” of the “opposite sex,” “settle down” and never “stray”? Apologies for the scare quotes, but seriously. Maybe you don’t mind supporting the status quo, maybe you don’t even mind the capitalist system, enjoy your relationship being legitimated by the state? Well, there are a whole lot more problems with our ideas of romance than we ever hear at the cinema.

disneyheteroThe ultimate problem with heterosexual monogamy is the way it enshrines a hierarchy of relationships. One’s most important bond is with one’s romantic partner. Yeah, you might have friends, but it’s cool to ignore them if you find yourself in a relationship. Obviously you’ll take your partner to that social function, I mean who else is there? Couples refer to themselves as “we.” Other people refer to couples as “John and Jane” or whatever. They merge.

Becky Rosa’s work on anti-monogamy is some of the best I’ve ever read. She criticises monogamy for promoting an “ideology that as adults we should primarily bond with one person, meeting most of our needs from them.” We not only see this in the proliferation of songs, movies, books obsessed with finding a “life partner” but in the social and economic status and incentives given to married or de facto couples. This is why conservative politicians (and unfortunately most of the population) want to promote the couple, the nuclear family. It’s the most orderly way of sorting people.

Mononormativity is the pervasive normalisation of monogamous romantic relationships as the most desirable, “natural” form of relating. Once you realise its presence you feel suffocated. Double beds. Armrests at the cinema that lift up between two seats and are locked down on either side. Two’s company, three’s a crowd. The third wheel. The odd person out. A lover being our “other half.” Which is based on Plato’s myth of humans originally being connected balls, then split in two, so we search always for our “wholeness.” Why is two such a magic number?

platomythThis hierarchy is ultimately patriarchal. Women in a heterosexual monogamous relationship have greater status and opportunities than women who aren’t. They are seen as normal. They are successful. In this stasis – the status quo of heterosexual monogamy – compulsory heterosexuality is affirmed and women’s highest priority is their husband and children. Dangerous, potentially radical ways of relating, such as women’s friendships, are diminished.

Isn’t it time to deprioritise this privileging of sexual relations as comprising our most meaningful relationships? Why do we equate our most important emotional relationships with monogamy? Why have we closed off all our other options? Why are friends less important than lovers? Why is the sexual cordoned off, welcomed only in monogamous relationships? Rosa puts it best: “For monogamy to exist, there needs to be a division between sexual/romantic love and nonsexual love…We believe that there is a distinction between the romantic/sexual love people feel for their partners, the love people feel for their friends and the love we feel for our biological families, yet this is not quantified nor qualified.” How come it’s unacceptable to love two people romantically, yet we would never dream that a mother or a father couldn’t love all of their children. The fact is, monogamy suits patriarchy.

friendshipThis belief sets up a hierarchy of relationships with monogamous partner at the top. The relative neglect of other relationships results in a poverty of intimacy. As Rosa puts it, this “is maintained by ensuring that certain needs can only be met within a certain kind of relationship, the couple” and “it is also very difficult for people not in couple relationships to get the love and caring they want if other people are absorbed in their pair-bond.” Friendship is always less important than romantic relationships. We are obsessed with the “story” of how a couple met each other, but do you ever ask where your friend met her friend? In meeting with a friend we ask, “How is John?” (her partner), but not “How is Marie?” (her friend). We gossip if someone is going out on a date, but not if he is going out with a friend. We gossip that a relationship is on the rocks. Couldn’t care less about the intimacy between siblings. Someone bails on a night out with friends to go on a date? All good. And of course, as Jackson and Scott point out, there’s the eternal problem of “the assumption that we have a pre-ordained right to impose a lover on our friends and that they are automatically included in any social invitation.” Our lives are impoverished by investment in a single “love” relationship.

impoverishedThis poverty is central to patriarchy. With women and men dependent on each other, heteronormativity is maintained and women are separated from each other. Monogamy is also deeply conservative: it keeps couples focused inside – on domesticity, on the house, the car, the kids – rather than seeking radical social change. This is the idea of “settling down,” which apparently everyone learns to yearn for as they “mature.”

Let’s turn to Kipnis again for a dispassionate summing-up: “the authorised forms of desire are those pollinated in the hothouse of the nuclear family, forever in lockstep with its oedipal technologies.”

Just as problematic is the treatment of people as objects. The language of capitalism is inherent to romance. We talk of people as an “item,” call partners “mine” or “my man,” we say “I’m all yours,” “I want you,” “I gotta have you,” “I’ll kill any man who takes you from me,” “You belong to me,” “The girl gets the boy,” “I’m not available.” Why do we speak like this about the person we apparently care for most in the world? We do we feel the need to have exclusive ownership of somebody? While many are leaving behind the abusive capitalistic features of marriage or de facto relationships, such as joint bank accounts, joint ownership of property and women taking men’s surnames (though seriously in 2014 the number of women still doing this is startling), mononormativity thrives on ownership.

jealousySince reading some theorists on intimacy, I am constantly shocked by what I hear in songs and see on TV. Things that are so clearly violent and abusive are represented as “romantic.”

Women and men alike want to know where their partners are at all times. Men can’t talk to women their girlfriends don’t like. Women can’t go out with a man they find attractive. Why didn’t she answer the call? Why doesn’t he say the right thing in this circumstance? Kipnis lists a huge range of interdictions that most people would consider perfectly reasonable when taken one by one: “You can’t spend more than X amount of time talking to such persons, with X measured in nanoseconds. You can’t provoke the mate’s jealousy. You can’t talk to people who make the mate feel insecure or threatened. You can’t socialise with your exes, even if you swear it’s really over. You can’t transgress the standards or degree of honesty or bluntness that the other person feels is appropriate in social situations.” After a few pages of this, the panopticon of coupledom seems hideous, nothing appealing about it.

panopticonIt’s apparently romantic to lust after someone, even badger or chase them, though they don’t offer any encouragement. A marriage or relationship is a failure if it ends in divorce. Inevitable human change is not permitted. To be locked inside the same rules and the same priorities with the same person – to the exclusion of all others – is apparently our hearts’ desire. Why don’t we recognise that this benefits social order, and not necessarily us? We have been sucked in to the vortex of the romance myth.

How about the lovely song “I Will Possess Your Heart” by Death Cab for Cutie?

Or the Beatles, “Run for Your Life”?

“You’d better run for your life, little girl

Hide your head in the sand, little girl

Catch you with another man

That’s the end, little girl.”

beatles

Misogynistic, obviously, but the panopticon of monogamy is practiced on both sides, being a keystone of heterosexuality.

Aretha Franklin sings in “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)”:

“I guess I’ll rap on your door

Tap on your window pane

I wanna tell you, baby

Changes I’ve been going through

Missing you, listening you

Til you come back to me that’s what I’m gonna do.”

And how can we leave out the woman who proclaimed she finds feminism “boring,” Lana Del Rey? “He hit me and it felt like a kiss.” Of course, she is referencing The Crystals’ 1960s hit, and forty years on our ideas of romance are just as entwined with abuse and control, so maybe a few more of us should try to figure out what this feminism thing is all about.

ultraviolenceThen we have the supposed latest feminist icon, Beyoncé, singing that the only way some man can have a say in her activities is if he claims exclusive ownership: “If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it.

And lastly (though the examples go on forever), Selena Gomez declaring in a song I can only gather is directed towards pre-teens: “When you’re ready come and get it…I’ll be sittin’ right here, real patient” and to top it off “Even if you knock it, ain’t no way to stop it.

selenagomezIn these last two songs, we have the well-worn delusion that women are after “secure” monogamy, the gatekeepers of romance, always passive, and men have to give up their “natural” desire to be wayward. These women objectify themselves. Call it the oldest trick in the book of the patriarchy.

These lovely pop songs normalise abuse for the sake of monogamy. In our definition of romance, violence is never far away. It’s pop culture like this that is the reason we still have horrendous rates of violence against women. In Australia, a woman a week is killed by an intimate partner. This in a society in which women apparently participate at a level equal to men. But it’s the more insidious ideas we still have about women, men and heterosexual relationships that cause this violence. Which is why we need to look at what makes us uncomfortable: the fact that control and interdictions which are thought of as “just part of monogamy” would be better classified as abuse.

domesticviolenceThe idea that monogamy provides security is hugely troubling. Apparently women need to be in a monogamous relationship, and desire marriage, because they need to feel “secure.” Why? Are men constantly thinking about relationships with other women? Is the only thing making you feel safe the fact that you are in a relationship with rules? The fact that your partner is forbidden to leave you? The fact that the state has recognised your relationship as legitimate? Jealousy is considered a natural emotion, because we don’t want to consider the possibility that it’s actually the control at the heart of monogamy that is the problem.

In fact, romantic monogamous relationships capitalise on insecurity. They can only thrive on jealousy, anxiety and self-absorption. Simone de Beauvoir tells us that women utterly abdicate their sense of identity in romantic relationships, because “A woman is non-existent without a master.” A man is the essential, and her only chance at true life is through him. Patriarchal heteronormativity has told women that this is their only means of achievement. And who makes up the biggest market for romance novels, romantic comedies, magazines to improve marriage? Yeah.

weddingAnd yet society tells us that the only way to be a mature, fully-realised person is to be engaged in a romantic monogamous relationship! Preferably heterosexual and state-sanctioned through marriage, but as a last resort same-sex monogamy will do.

This tells us romance is not the prime expression of human compassion. It is ultimately about the self. While men are less defined by their relationships and their children, they are also sucked in to this grand, totalising myth. We are told that the best way to discover ourselves is in falling in love. Oh, so it’s about us, not them? Or we are supposed to “lose ourselves in them.” In which case it is still about us. And to maintain romance, we must set up rules, interdictions, lines you cannot cross. This is because in the end it is about social order. Beauvoir tells it like it is: “Love has a smaller place in woman’s life than has often been supposed. Husband, children, home, amusements, social duties, vanity, sexuality, career, are much more important. Most women dream of a grand amour, a soul-searing love.” This is the fiction. The fact is institutionalised monogamy. Isn’t the search for our “other half” or true “wholeness” essentially selfish? It stops us from seeing the other person as they are, as we are able to see friends and relatives, without reference to ourselves, but as a whole person in themselves. As Beauvoir says, the “dream…to attain supreme existence through losing oneself in the other” is not selfless, but self-obsessed. In refusing to allow the other person freedom, in establishing so many rules about their movements, speech, glances and smiles, we are not showing care. We are creating our own insecurity. Monogamy doesn’t solve the problem of jealousy, it creates it. If you didn’t need to control your partner, you wouldn’t mind how intimate they were with another person.

So the hook is romance, but the end goal is domesticity. The end goal is institutionalised couples who lock themselves out of all the other complex network of relationships that are a whole lot more radical. Because we are told that this is the only way to stop the everlasting insecurity inside of us.