Polyamory has entered popular culture in some countries, particularly in eurocentric ones. It’s being mentioned and explored more in TV dramas, and now dating sites like Feeld support polyamory structures. In a backlash to traditional Christian values, people are rejecting the cultural norms to remain monogamous, or at least serially monogamous, in cis-gendered heterosexual marriages. There is a lot of shame associated with dating more than one person at a time, then building relationships, then starting families. In such places, this is a relatively new problem to navigate.
Though, in reality, polyamory – particularly polygyny, a male husband having more than one female wife- has always existed in one form or another. Raised as a Muslim, I was aware that alternative family structures existed. Normally all consensual and long lasting. But like any other relationship structure, still open to abuse. It has fed into Islamophobic narratives that Muslim men abuse women. No. Men abuse women. People abuse people, because of existing social and cultural structures. In my professional and personal experience, any relationship can fall into abuse.
That said, there was a reason polygyny was accepted in millennia past:
- The need to provide sustenance to women and children if their husband’s were killed in conflict or died. In Islamic traditions, women keep their own wealth and husbands are expected to provide. In other cultures, women have no rights to wealth, education or work, so it is a particularly vulnerable position if a women were to be abandoned/widowed.
- To provide a clear lineage and prevent incestuous marriages. Given contraception and free healthcare is new, and still doesn’t exist in some parts of the world, this is important.
- To preserve wealth and form treaties between tribes and nations. Marrying someone from a rival group is seen as an act of peace and good faith. Polyamory made this easier.
As a polyamorous person myself, I know I’m capable of feeling love in different forms with different people at the same time. But I am fully aware that my ability to do so is steeped in the privileges of growing up in modern Britain and living in a somewhat progressive city. I am not white, but if I were, I’m sure I’d find polyamory less a problem to navigate, too.
For a long time I resisted using a polyamory title. I don’t want to associate my polyamorous preferences with problematic religious and cultural norms, that are often homophobic, misogynistic and xenophobic. The rebellion I mentioned against Christian culture is real and justifiable. I’d much rather live in a world where we celebrate our differences than force people to live in narrow identity boxes.
The vast majority of discussions around ethical polyamory are Eurocentric, liberal, and stoked in Western bias. I haven’t seen any modern discussion that includes the experience of other cultural forms on polyamory. This is a gap, in my opinion. Hence me writing this piece.
Equally, eurocentric people falling into romanticising other religious and cultural polyamorous preferences, not only white washing the lived experiences of people in those cultures, but also risks appropriating something for their own benefit. I take issue with that. Just because something is sexually/romantically arousing on screen/in print/at home, doesn’t make it something you should consume, where others suffer in those situations. I’d recommend taking some time to reflect on cultural issues and how they are impacting your polyamory decision making process.
I still feel a need for a lasting regular romantic relationship, but not necessarily monogamous. I’m doing what feels right. Because I can. Most people around the world can’t. They don’t have access to wealth, healthcare, contraception, liberal systems, a welfare state, and mental health support. So, polyamory has it’s limits and is NOT universal. The sooner we understand that, rather than push for something that isn’t realistic to everyone as an ideal, the kinder we will be.
I am not a researcher in this field nor an expert of any kind. This is just my opinion.
Title image: weaving red and natural jute rope around an aerial hoop. By Dea Nexa.