I don’t know how many times in my life I have been labeled a slut, easy, or a cheater for not following the dominant narrative of monogamy. Despite the phenomenon that most words scrutinizing someone’s sexuality are aimed at females (there is no male equivalent for bitch, slut, whore or other such terms) my problem is that these names are sliding a premise by people that have long gone unquestioned. This premise is that we have to live monogamously and that in many societies, monogamy is the only acceptable way of romantically loving another person. To understand why monogamy has been the hegemonic narrative for so long, it is important to define monogamy as a concept that has changed over time.
Monogamy describes having a single partner for life, socially manifested by the institution of marriage. Many people do not practice that form of lifelong monogamy anymore. Instead, we have shifted to a model of so-called serial monogamy, having one partner at a time, but having multiple partners throughout one’s lifetime. Monogamy is an ideal held up by society in every aspect of life: in the United States it is only legal to marry one person at a time, movies almost always involve the love story of two (mostly heterosexual) people, songs are written about the idea of having a “love of one’s life,” and Valentine’s Day is the commercialization of monogamy in our consumerist society.
Maybe that is why the idea of non-monogamy is so shocking to many people. We have been socialized to think that monogamy is essential because it is portrayed as normal, necessary, and natural to our dating lives. It is normal, because the overwhelming depiction of monogamy in everyday life (Valentine’s Day, movies, advertisements, wedding ceremonies) leaves little room for even thinking about what alternative relationship models could look like. It is necessary, because it keeps our social structures alive; there are tax breaks for married couples, and we have been told children should grow up with two parents (some people would even prefer to say with a mother and a father).
And God forbid, what would you do if, for a wedding, you wanted to bring plus two instead of plus one? Lastly, monogamy is portrayed as natural because it shuts down every debate of working non-monogamous relationships as unnatural and therefore not worth existing. All in all, monogamy is alive and kicking, and frankly I don’t even have a problem with monogamy in and of itself. Many people are happy with one partner at a time. The problem is that monogamy is such an overarching metanarrative that it pressures people to be and love a certain way. There is a great deal of blame and judgement in our society for people that are not able or not willing to conform to monogamy because it questions one of the premises of western societies: private ownership, in this case over another person’s body and feelings.
Monogamy bases itself on a market-thinking: maximizing one’s profit. In this case, that is the other person. There is this strange concept of scarcity in our world. In many cases that scarcity is indeed a problem: fossil fuels, biodiversity, minerals or clean drinking water might be scarce, or in other words limited in supply. We have applied this idea to love: love is scarce and therefore we have to acquire as much as possible for ourselves. As if every person only has two pounds of love in their body, and if they give two pounds to someone, there is less love for someone else. That is, probably, why so many people are afraid of cheating. They feel like something is taken away from them. Love is something essential to human beings. We are very social animals: we want to be validated and we want to feel special. In short, we want and we need to feel loved for our well-being. Cheating, therefore, is not only a break of trust, it is the threat of something that feels like the very basis of our happiness.
However, as much as we do apply the concept of monogamy and love as a scarce resource to our relationships, there are clear distinctions between the kind of love we are allowed to feel and for how many people. Because contrary to relationships, parents are supposed to love all their children the same, without having a favorite child. In monogamy, love is not love. There is a clear distinction between romantic love, often involving sexual activity, and non-romantic love, as for a child or for one’s parents.
This notion of sexual intercourse changing a relationship between people can be traced back to ancient times when marriage was a way of transferring property (women) from one owner (father) to another (husband). The virginity of a woman functioned as a safety mechanism to make sure that the property of the woman and her ability to reproduce could not be claimed by another man. Although we might have changed our perception about that today, the basic principle remains- in a relationship, we belong to each other. We are each other’s property. This is problematic for a variety of reasons. Firstly, owning another person’s body attaches a situational value to that body. In a monogamous relationship, your body loses worth the moment you decide to opt out of the monogamist structure or your relationship: for example, through cheating.
People that perceive these social norms as congruent with their idea of love and life are well off. And probably, they will have a happy life of serial monogamy. Again, this is not to discredit monogamy in general. It is to understand why some people do opt out, and how society views these people. My intention is not to convert anyone to be a non-monogamous person. It is, however, to bring attention to a community that is heavily marginalized, judged, and sometimes even discriminated against for having a different way of loving people. If we truly are for free love, we cannot just make love about gender. We have to make it about relationships too.