Slipping The Ties That Bind: Varietism, Compulsory Monogamy and Loving More
by Peter Staudenmaier, February 26, 2001

IN MANY WESTERN CULTURES, few topics are harder to talk about openly and reasonably than sex, love and intimacy. The subject is likely to be occasion for embarrassment or misunderstanding, and is often simply not a safe theme for people who have suffered abuse or had mostly negative experiences. Despite the pitfalls involved, however, it's important to try to come to terms with the various forms of sexual expression within the communities we live and work in, with as much knowledge as possible. In that spirit I'd like to explore a set of choices about intimate conduct that is rarely articulated in a serious and thoughtful way: conscious non-monogamy.

I'll emphasize at the outset that there's nothing wrong with monogamy as such. When monogamous relationships are the result of considered choice, they're frequently durable and fulfilling, and anything that makes people truly happy is all right with me. But there is something wrong with compulsory monogamy; and unfortunately that is the predominant manifestation of monogamy in our current society.

What's in a Name?

Indeed, the very term "non-monogamy" points to the problem here. Using this word to designate an alternative approach to relationships underlines the extent to which monogamy is the unquestioned premise, the unacknowledged dogma behind all discussions of the topic. People who practice alternatives to monogamy sometimes choose terms like "polyamory," "open relationships" or "inclusive relationships" (as opposed to exclusive ones). Personally I like the old phrases "free love" and "varietism," which were pioneered by nineteenth century anarchists and feminists who were acutely aware of the connection between sexual freedom and social freedom. The phrase "free love" was appropriated in the 1970's and subsequently took on narcissistic and male-dominated connotations, and I'm loathe to bring those associations to the kind of conscious non-monogamy that I believe can be truly liberating. Thus, I'm left with the little-used but untainted "varietism."

Varietism takes many forms; I will only describe one of them here. But what all forms have in common is a rejection of monogamy as ideology and as institution. The ideology of monogamy is based on what I call the soap opera paradigm (you might also call it the Hollywood paradigm or the Disney paradigm): the notion that somewhere out there your perfect complement awaits, the person who will fulfill all your desires, and if you can just find each other you'll live happily ever after. I think that's a fairy tale which ends up cheating a lot of people out of a meaningful and successful love life. Challenging such romantic illusions can open up real erotic and emotional possibilities instead of holding us hostage to an impractical myth.

The soap opera paradigm is based on two equally implausible and contradictory ideas: That of generalized emotional-erotic scarcity (there's not enough love or lust to go around, so I'd better grab what I can get and hold on to it); and that of complete one-to-one compatibility (one person can satisfy all of my needs and longings, and I'll be able to do the same for him or her, forever).

I propose a more realistic scenario: Sexual desire and emotional satisfaction are dynamic and constantly changing aspects of our lives, and attraction doesn't usually sort itself automatically into neat categories. The prospect that one person will bring universal fulfillment is as unlikely as the prospect that I'll never find any fulfillment at all if I don't ensure that my relationship with him or her is an exclusive one.

Thus varietism seeks to replace an ethos of romantic competition with one of cooperation. Affection and pleasure aren't rare commodities to be carefully guarded; indeed they often multiply when shared. Rejecting the ideology of monogamy does not require giving up on deep and lasting emotional bonds, but simply freeing those powerful connections from an inadequate and inappropriate structure. In the words of lesbian activist Ellen Herman, "This does not mean that love and intimacy would disappear, just that the role of sexuality would be less distorted and scaled to a more realistic size, making chances for sexual and emotional satisfaction much greater."

As misleading as the ideology of monogamy is, it is monogamy as institution that is truly damaging. In fact, the discrepancy between the ideology and the institution is striking: for many people, men in particular, "monogamy" means demanding fidelity from one's partner while violating it oneself when the opportunity arises. This is not surprising given the historical origins of monogamy and the social context within which it operates. Private property and economic acquisitiveness, after all, accord well with a model of romantic possessiveness. And it is difficult to disentangle the institution of monogamy from the sexism, homophobia, and general fear of sexual nonconformity which mark our culture. From this perspective, we might view patriarchy, heterosexism, and compulsory monogamy as one interlocking structure, where each component reinforces the others, to the detriment of us all.

Monogamy as Ideology & Institution

Even as a moral framework, monogamy falls short in several ways. Devotees of the practice—I like to call them monogamaniacs—trumpet its ethical character, which is supposed to be based on consideration for one's partner and the wish to avoid messy entanglements. But our feelings plainly are messy much of the time, and monogamy more often acts as a kind of moral or emotional shortcut by offering people a prepackaged set of easy answers and thus relieving them of the burden of making difficult choices. Ethical varietism, on the other hand, asks us to work through such questions, painful as they may be, and to squarely and openly face the issues they raise for us and our partners. Commitment to one's partner and to the relationship, from this point of view, becomes an active process that is constantly renewed rather than a passive structure that is merely assumed.

So how does this alternative model of relationships actually work? It starts with honesty—a radical and challenging kind of honesty. Creating open relationships requires a commitment to genuine communication with everybody involved. This can be scary at first, and certainly requires discipline, but it can also be an inspiring revelation. Intimacy is often deepened, and pleasure increased, when we start treating our own affection and desire, as well as our partner's affection and desire, with respect rather than suspicion. Believe it or not, watching your lover blossom in the context of another relationship can be intensely rewarding and can strengthen your own bond. It can, of course, also lead to changes in your relationship that may involve greater distance or even, to be fair, separation. But the important question is whether people remain committed to their relationships out of honesty and love or out of fear and insecurity.

Varietism in Practice

Here's how it can work concretely: If you have a primary partner, responsible varietism means opening up your relationship to other lovers. This might involve nothing more than cautiously exploring your feelings for another person that you're drawn to; or it might mean sleeping with several new people while maintaining your primary relationship. In any case, there's nothing wrong with making your original partner your number one priority, emotionally and physically—indeed that's usually both preferable and necessary—as long as your outside partners are fully aware of the nature of your relationship. This demands special forthrightness with any potential other lovers in order to avoid misleading or taking advantage of them. (And, of course, many people will lose interest once they learn you're already involved.)

The guideline is that nothing happens without everybody involved giving their consent. What that means in practice is up to you and your partner: maybe there are things you agree to do in bed only with one another; maybe you reserve certain times or places for yourselves; maybe each of you only gets it on with someone else when your partner's out of town. As for your other lovers, the arrangement you negotiate will depend on what drew you together in the first place. The idea is to explore your shared spark and see where it leads you, within the fundamental parameters of mutual respect.

Because passionate feelings are so wonderfully yet treacherously mercurial, this kind of openness can get complicated fast. Varietism is not a naive attempt to ignore the emotional attachments that usually come with sexual involvement. Instead it is an attempt to negotiate those passions in a clearheaded manner. This requires talking through new possibilities beforehand and always giving each person the chance to say "no" if it doesn't feel safe or desireable. It also means recognizing that your partner might want to initiate something that frightens you at first. Confronting such fears often ends up actually enhancing your overall sense of security and trust. The potentials and the boundaries are completely up to the two of you.

If you're not currently partnered, a non-monogamous approach entails being straightforward with people you're attracted to: if they expect an eventual monogamous relationship, and you're not interested in that, you need to let them know at the outset. While this can be awkward in a culture that presumes monogamy as official doctrine, it is not impossible. Part of the trick is to examine your own motives and make sure they're amicable. Selfish, hostile, or fearful motivations often get mixed in with amorous desire, and it's best to know what is really driving you. This is, of course, easier said than actually done, but these are precisely the kinds of gray areas that conscious varietism sheds light on and compels us to examine.

And what about jealousy, that most insistent of feelings? Varietism isn't some sort of cure for jealousy, just a different method of dealing with it. In some ways, the entire edifice of monogamy is an elaborate way of not dealing with jealousy. Those of us who practice non-monogamous lifestyles view jealousy as something to be struggled with rather than simply capitulated to. We recognize that it will arise, and try to respond with compassion and understanding—toward ourselves, toward our partners, and toward whomever it is that seems to be arousing the jealousy in the first place. Trying to avoid the mere possibility of jealous feelings by flatly prohibiting external sexual involvement doesn't work, as honest experience with monogamous relationships shows. Ignoring it won't make it go away. Varietism doesn't necessarily offer better answers to the problem of jealousy, but it does ask better questions.

What's My Motivation?

But is all this really worth the effort? Sexuality and romantic love are among the most powerful, unpredictable, and often overwhelming forces in our lives. The notion that we might be able to take some direct control of these forces and consciously, deliberately re-shape them in ways that go against our upbringing—this notion strikes many people as simply impossible. It's challenging enough to try to make sense of the contradiction and neediness of attraction and partnering with just one person; why make this vulnerable part of life even more complicated?

The answer I'm asking you to consider is this: Much of the confusion, inadequacy and anxiety many of us frequently feel in our love lives stems from a misguided attempt to force living human feelings into narrow, prefabricated boxes, where they inevitably wither. This is what compulsory monogamy does to us. Far from exacerbating these problems, conscious varietism offers a way out. It doesn't promise some sort of sexual utopia where all difficulties are magically resolved. What it presents is a practical alternative for those who suspect that monogamy ain't all it's cracked up to be.

Nevertheless varietism remains little understood. Some people object that it makes all relationships potentially sexual. This apprehension is understandable, but it misses the reciprocal, active and conscious nature of consensual desire. Erotic interest is only acted on if both people deliberately choose to do so. Most of us would never dream of actually going to bed with every single person we flirt with or have the hots for, and non-monogamous people are no different in this respect.

Perhaps the most common misunderstanding about varietism is confusing it with plain old sleeping around, or even simple cheating. The troubling prevalence of cheating, well-documented in study after study, is in fact primarily a problem with monogamy itself; there is much less room in the varietist worldview for convenient or callous dishonesty. And while sleeping around in the sense of indiscriminate or unreflective sexual activity may seem superficially similar to what I've described here, it is actually based on an entirely incompatible mindset.

Non-monogamy strives to cultivate spontaneity and variety, not egotism and indifference to intimacy. There's no shortage of people who appear dedicated to limitless sleeping around, but I think they've got more in common with monogamaniacs than with the responsible varietism I've outlined. (On the other hand they probably consider people like me self-righteous and uptight. Maybe we're both right. In any case, our perspectives couldn't be further apart.) The point is that there is an ethical dimension to sexual relationships, and varietism makes this dimension central.

The ethical dimension is particularly relevant for those of us who, on varying levels, are committed to social change. The feminist principle that "the personal is political" enjoins us to re-examine the broader societal consequences of our individual choices. It's not my business to tell anyone else how to manage their romantic affairs; but it is hard for me to imagine a compelling defense of sexual exclusivity that does not boil down to a simple admission of defeat in the face of cultural pressure. The precept that nothing happens without everybody involved giving their consent is the basic criterion of a cooperative and democratic social order. So what reason is there to ban this insight from our sexual interactions? If we spend our public lives resisting commodification, subverting patriarchal norms, fighting against the rule of property and the power of the state, why should we allow these malevolent forces space and influence into the most intimate parts of who we are? What is the use of transforming social relations if our closest and deepest relationships remain unchanged?

It takes courage to look at these questions and come up with our own responses rather than parroting the ones that have been handed down to us. Ultimately the answers will depend on what makes sense for you and your loved ones. Even people who have consciously chosen a monogamous lifestyle, after an honest look at the alternatives, can remain opposed to compulsory monogamy. The message of conscious varietism is that making choices is what makes us human, and that mutual consent should be the basis for all that we do together. Even if giving serious consideration to varietism doesn't change your mind about your own relationships, it will help you understand those of us who have made different choices.

"Love in its broadest sense, based on care, responsibility, respect and knowledge, is not an escape from a life without meaning, but a recognition that we make our individual lives meaningful through our involvements with others. We cannot retreat from the contingency and arbitrariness of the world, but we can make life meaningful if we face it with a recognition of our mutual need for one another." (Jeffrey Weeks)

[For those who are interested in exploring these issues more thoroughly, there is a fine book about non-monogamy by Dossie Easton and Catherine Liszt titled The Ethical Slut. Dedicated to the proposition that "sex is nice and pleasure is good for you", this very down-to-earth book examines the ins and outs of non-monogamous living in witty, practical and concrete terms. The other texts I've mentioned are Ellen Herman, "Lust at Last", in Steve Shalom, Socialist Visions; and Jeffrey Weeks, "Sexual Values Revisited", in Lynne Segal, New Sexual Agendas.]