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23 September, 2009

Papa Was A Rolling Stone

Questioning sexuality and gender often seem to run together, so I hope you'll forgive me if I take a moment to discuss gender roles today.

The link occurred to me today because there seems, in recent conservative rhetoric, to be a link between the teeming evils of polyamory, pornography, and the diluted strength of gender roles. One Pat Fagan argues that "By controlling ... [education of children, sex education and adolescent health,] the culture of polyamory diminishes the influence and dismantles the authority and influence of parents of the culture of monogamy particularly in their ability to form their children as members of their own culture." Evidently we polyamorists are dissolving the family from childhood on, splashing our caustic feminism across the marble face of U.S. society. Fagan argues, among his maddened antisocialist rants, that conservative families have to model "a new 'masculinism'" for their children - that fathers must strike a strong, unambiguous pose for their children - or, in today's culture, those kids will grow up with an unhealthily confused picture of sex and gender. When you stop laughing or crying (pick your preference), some of Fagan's points may be worth exploring.

One element of the current trend for genderbending as a human rights issue is the emphasis on individual rights. One ought - and here I'll thoroughly agree - to have as much right to self-determination as one can carry! There's no coherent argument for the quashing of self-expression, as long as that expression is responsible and doesn't reach the point of shouting "Fire!" in a theater (at least, there's no argument brief enough to entertain here). In short, this argument takes it as axiomatic that human beings have the right to be left free to follow the course of their own actions.

That said, there is a case to be made for the value of clear role models. Education is a strange, liminal period, and the ethical implications of controlling childhood behavior are blurry. Children do, I believe, need guidance; they don't need a Skinner box. Growing up, it would be a bit nuts to make children follow adults' example in lockstep. It's useful, though, for children to have adults on whom they can model themselves. If we don't find a behavioral model with which we can identify during our childhoods, most of us are left confused and feeling somewhat inadequate.

The trick is that children have a problem with categorization: they can't get enough of it. It's easy for me to imagine the confusion that children will experience if (when) they encounter adults, especially when those adults are their parents, who have complex gender identities. In my own childhood, I didn't have many male role models, and most of them either bowed before women or were fictional caricatures of violent manhood. I grew up with the notion that anything a man could do, a woman could do better, with the possible exception of being an asshole, and with the implicit notion that "man" and "woman" were meaningful categories. (Then again, some of those female authority figures ruling the schoolyard were great at being assholes - but their violence was never the physical violence I saw from men in fiction.) To the extent that I self-identified with the category of maleness, I devalued myself; and, unsurprisingly, I went through a silent but memorable flirtation with gender crisis around the beginning of high school. Wouldn't a powerful, noble masculine figure have been a boon to such a child?

Now, imagine the search for selfhood in a child whose role models refuse even to stick to a category. As adults, we should and must have the right to self-determination. There simply is no tenable reason to legislate restriction of expression, as long as that expression doesn't harm others (and I am not arguing that the effects described in this essay meet that criterion). But children don't have the same depth of self-knowledge that adults eventually obtain. How is a kid to know, at the age at which it's just figuring out the concept of male and female to begin with, where it fits on that spectrum? How is it to know with what adult behavioral models it should identify itself? When puberty hits, if that kid suddenly finds itself on the wrong side of gender lines and is unable to live up to its self-image, that's when the crisis would hit as well. Children (and no doubt adults) favor their own social groups, even when those groups are created randomly for a study; imagine the pain and confusion one feels when one's body rebels against the group with which one self-identifies, as could easily happen when a child who's always identified with the gender not associated with its sex hits puberty and its hormones kick in hard. Clearly, Fagan would conclude, what would be best for children is to create an environment in which such ambiguity is not present.

I reach a different conclusion. What causes the problem in this scenario is not the ambiguity gender in the children's role models; it is instead the inclusion of gender as an aspect of self-identity. There are some elements of character that one does or has, and others that one is (or at least, that is who we conceive of them). I may have a disease, but that does not change my perceived nature; I may do a certain job, but that need not change my nature, either. Other people, though, would say that they are a member of their profession, using it as an element of identity, and the same for any other element. If maleness or femaleness were something that one had or did, rather than someone one is, it wouldn't inspire a crisis for children to realize that they don't do gender in the same way that their role models do. The answer to this problem, if we want to maintain the emphasis on self-determination that the U.S. has always loved so well, is not to lock down gender roles but to abandon the identity politics that make "men" and "women" socially differentiated.

Identity politics turn categorization into a weapon, and even the ambient category delineation that surrounds gender can cause massive collateral damage. Difference is important and worth celebrating, but the real location of difference is between individuals. No group acts as a unit. Given that, despite the existence of general, evolved trends in difference between men and women, there will be some exceptions in any individual, these categories may do more harm than help. In a future in which more people openly defy today's gender expectations, and in which medical technology will increase the resolution with which we define sex and its relationship with gender presentations and sex-typical or gender-typical behaviors, those categories will become progressively less useful. A medical distinction will continue to be useful (after all, not everyone needs to be screened for prostate cancer), but in a world where sex is just that, and gender drops from the biting world of identity politics ... well, fuck it! If sex and gender are divorced and identity politics wither, do we even need gender as a category?

Which outcome is more feasible? At this point, no-one is going to force transfolk back into the closet without some shocking and unpredicted outside event (say, to be ludicrous, global nuclear war, after which the details of U.S. culture would hardly matter). Unfortunately, identity politics seem to be a serious pillar of contemporary social liberalism. The idea of celebrating difference doesn't yet seem to be divorced from the notion of social categories, which means that gender as an element of group and personal identity probably has a long life ahead of it. Still, consider the two proposed solutions: Fagan's attempts to treat the symptoms resulting from tying gender to identity; this seeks to remove the cause.

Commentary? Dissent? When I talk about sex and gender, I usually don't have to ask for comments in order to get an argument going, and given that I wrote this between classes and during conversations, I suspect that'll be true here as well.

NB: Please do not take my endorsement of "self-determination" as an indication that I believe in the concept of "free will". The two are mutually exclusive; one is a sociopolitical concept, while the other belongs to the natural sciences.

09 September, 2009

A Piece of the Action

When you think "polyamory", what's the first thing that comes to mind? Cuddle piles? Jealousy? Day planners? An overabundance of neologisms? No, of course not - if you're anything like the rest of us, the first thing you think of is MTV!

Yes, MTV, that bastion of U.S. media and culture! Somewhere in between all those music videos they're so fond of broadcasting, they found time to shine a spotlight on reality. That's right, folks: next week, True Life, the documentary series that brought you "I'm on Steroids", "I Live in a Brothel", "I'm on Crystal Meth" and the 2006 sequel "I'm Addicted to Crystal Meth", will be screening the soon-to-be-classic "True Life: I'm Polyamorous!" You can read it all right here!

For those of you who are just tuning in, some stunningly unprofessional intern at MTV has been posting on the LiveJournal polyamory community for months, since at least last winter, begging for a poly family with an expecting mother to step in front of the camera. The backlash was incredible, even excepting the posts that were simply devoted to tearing apart the poster's grammar. You see, the last time this happened, shit went down. A trio named April, Shane and Chris lived together with April's child from a previous relationship, but when April's grandmother saw the three of them on MTV's "Sex in the 90's: It's a Group Thing" (really, guys?), she stormed off to court and convinced a judge to remove the child from their home. According to Time magazine, "the judge handling the grandmother's petition said one of the men had to move out before he would consider returning Alana" (emphasis added, because Jesus shit). April later dropped her appeal, saying that she had found herself to be an unfit mother on other grounds, but the original issue was never resolved. The legal precedent remains in Tennessee: consensual nonmonogamy is such dangerous debauchery that it is sufficient grounds for a judge to order a child removed from the custody of her parents.

Honestly, I'm curious about this documentary. I have never seen an episode of "True Life", and maybe it'll be engaging, informative, entertaining ... one out of three wouldn't be bad. Maybe one of our campus organizations could get together around a dorm's cable-equipped TV sets so that we can see for ourselves. I worry, however, that it will just be in keeping with MTV's typical reality programming: the 21st century equivalent of a traveling freaks' cage. Step right up and take a look at People Who Are Not Like Us. Aren't you glad we're all out here?

EDIT: More nonmonogamy in the media - this A Softer World comic may be the best thing ever. It is currently in contention with the rest of the A Softer World comics.

06 September, 2009

Yay serotonin!

Blast, it's been some time since my last post! I've been busy as a beaver on a flood plain, moving back into school mode and taking reunion as a cause for serious play mode. Let me tell you, going back to school makes me deeply pleased to be in a non-monogamous relationship.

I'm the sort of person who cherishes intimacy. I love the conversation space that only appears when people are lying in the dark together, naked, a little exhausted, and full of a desire to be close to each other. I don't think there's any way I prefer for getting to know people I already enjoy. There's a level of unguarded exchange that sneaks into post-coital conversation, and even if people have discussed the same topics under the sun, I see a special openness during those late-night moments.

When it comes to reasons to avoid monogamy, that's near the top of my list. I'm the sort of fellow who likes to share my favorite activities with my friends, and let's be honest here: sex is one of my favorite activities. I also treasure the trust of people I trust and respect in turn. Sharing secrets in the dark is one of my favorite ways to share and demonstrate - or, in the early nights, to create - that trust. I love that comfort, and sharing it with the people, plural, whom I love is a special source of joy for me.

But hey, you'll find a lot of praise like the above, if you go looking for it. Plenty of people online write about the joys of non-monogamy, and that's what I've mostly been doing so far. People also talk often about the troubles that arise in non-monogamous relationships - jealousy, time management, all the potential drama when people aren't seeing eye to eye - but I haven't seen a lot of serious discussion by poly folks about what you lose by being in a non-monogamous relationship. That's a category that I haven't seen acknowledged often. Since I'm hoping to gear this blog toward people in the early stages of exploring non-monogamy, it seems that some warnings are in order.

It's a category that's bound to change depending on the structure of the relationships in question, as well as the mental landscape of the people involved. First, just to restate the obvious, unless one is in a polyfaithful relationship, where more than two people engage in a closed relationship, one loses the luxury of ignoring sexually transmitted infections. I've had condoms break with three partners now, and let me tell you, that moment is both awkward and terrifying. Is there a polite way to ask whether this person you care for and respect has some kind of hideous disease? I usually just start by offering the most reassuring information I can, referring to the last time I was tested and being explicitly clear about what risks, if any, I've had since then. But, what a nightmare - if just one person who slept with you or that person since your last test had lied or didn't know about an infection, you and those you love could be in grave danger. Get tested early and often so that you can give your lover good news if something goes wrong, and if you haven't been tested yet, be ready to take that responsibility seriously if something goes wrong. Sex is great, but it's risky, and we owe it to each other to take our safety seriously.

Second, I want to mention something that's far from universal. It's a serious emotional issue, though, especially given the fairy tale expectations that a lot of us have buried at various depths in our psyches. Some folk like to imagine that their lives can be about someone else, or that someone lives for them; in a non-monogamous relationship, it's hard to pull that off without treating other partners like secondary citizens. The satellite relationships are a constant reminder that both partners are individuals with their own passions external to the dyad. That doesn't have to prevent domestic bliss, but it does change the context dramatically.

Perhaps it's just me, but that seems like a major point. Marriage - and today I mean the good old dyadic union - is still a big deal, and a lot of us grow up with a longing for that union. Intimacy you can have without monogamy; love, compassion, family are all available; but it's hard to combine polyamory with that branch of domesticity. I can't quite imagine having a permanent relationship along the fifties model, no matter how much I might love to play housewife to someone's snappily dressed gentleman husband. The fifties housewife doesn't get nights off to play the top to her submissive lover from out of town; who has time to play when there's pot roast to be made?

Many people like the comfort of knowing their role, acting it out, and pleasing the person who assigns it to them. I suspect that when that kind of codependent domesticity does manifest, it's as an escape - a kind of role-playing, not too far from BDSM in psychological terms. Sometimes that's sexualized, but at other times, it's present in the workplace or in the home (which, to be fair, might not be too far from where sexuality lives). One might be tempted to take on that role permanently, but when one doesn't live exclusively for another person, it's hard to pretend that one does. And that's definitely a healthy thing, by my book. I won't be one to advocate comfort when responsibility to one's self is at stake. (Thus my atheism.) Without monogamy, one is pushed to take responsibility for one's own feelings and not to let them rest on another person's shoulders. So. lost and gone forever are those shoulders one might like to rely on. But, if one pushes oneself to grow further, one can reach the point where the support of another isn't necessary. It's wanted - it's amazing, ineffable, the chiefest delight of my life and many others - but learning that one can live without it is a necessary step.

Any thoughts from the peanut gallery? What do we lose when we choose not to be monogamous (or when we realize that monogamy is as alien to us as heteronormativity is to Freddy Mercury)?