Greetings! This is the final post in this blog. A bittersweet moment indeed. Yesterday, I gave a public defense of my dissertation, and my work was approved by my faculty committee. My project is complete! Hooray!
I know that some of my friends and colleagues were unable to attend yesterday, so I am posting the text from my speech, below. I hope you enjoy.
Thank you all for reading and following this blog. It has been an incredible journey. If you have been inspired by the possibility of “loving many,” I ask that you do so: Love openly, honestly, and compassionately in your daily life, no matter the potential for social scorn. Polyamory as a new paradigm for human relating is–inevitable. We are on the right side of history. It will take a bit more time, yes…but all our activist efforts will come to fruition. I believe that with my whole heart.
If you have any ideas for future writing projects or collaborations with me, please contact me at trahan (dot) heather (at) gmail (dot) com
Thank you, lovely readers. Namaste.
In David L. Wallace and Jonathan Alexander’s (2009) article “Queer Rhetorical Agency,” they indict our field, stating that the general trend is to merely give lip-service to what they call a “shallow multiculturalism.” They insist that teachers and scholars in rhetoric and composition “need to be better informed about the operation of gender, race, class, religion/spirituality, age, physical and mental/emotional ability, and sexual identity in our culture. And perhaps to be truly progressive, we must move beyond simply acknowledging our culpability in heteronormativity, sexism, racism, ableism, classism and the like in order to make unseating these systems of oppression central to our mission.” (pp. 815–816)
So, if we agree with them, if we agree that our field’s mission needs to be “the unseating of these systems,” then the question becomes: How? How do we move beyond just admitting that we, in our daily lives, have contributed to oppression in the world? What do we DO?
My own personal answer to these questions was to create the project that I will discuss today. I created a dissertation that draws light to a cultural movement that is rapidly spreading across our nation as well as globally, a cultural movement that promotes a more inclusive, compassionate paradigm for love and relationship. This is the movement of polyamory. Polyamory: a word that means “many loves.”
In the normative paradigm in which most people currently operate, the possibilities of: enjoying ethically non-monogamous sexual partnerships or co-parenting in a group of more than two adults can appear to be outlandish, impossible dreams. Just the silly ramblings of naïve hippies. This perception happens because there is, unfortunately, a dominant narrative at play, and it is nearly ubiquitous in many cultures, especially American culture. This dominant narrative insists that there is a right, normal, proper way of being “in love” and there is a right, normal, proper way for forming a family. Monogamy. Two people, in love, together forever, till death do us part, etc. This narrative is propagated in everyday discourse within an overwhelming majority of institutions such as schools, churches, courts, and hospitals. But, something different is happening. You may have noticed the reality shows about it on tv, or perhaps you’ve noticed rumblings about it on your facebook feed, such as this recent article that went viral about a commitment ceremony between three women. It’s the polyamory movement.
In my graduate lecture last December, I discussed the many definitions and uses of the term polyamory (often referred to as “poly” for short) As a quick review, I offer this definition by ecosexualities scholar Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio: “Polyamory is a state of being, an awareness, and/or a lifestyle that involves mutually acknowledged, simultaneous relationships of a romantic and/or sexual nature between more than two persons. . . . Polyamorous people erode the myth that being part of a closed dyad is the only authentic form of love” (2004, p. 165)
One of the major aims of my project was to simply introduce my readers to the topic of poly as it has been discussed in about a dozen academic fields, including that of sociology, psychology, communications, and women’s studies. This morning I will share with you two themes that I think offer an exciting challenge to our field in our quest to explore the mysteries of language, and how language affects imbalanced power systems and the need for social justice.
One of the major themes I found in the scholarship is the comparison of mononormativity to heteronormativity. Basically, mononormativity is the assumption that the only correct way to be is to be monogamous; heteronormativity is the assumption that the only correct way to be is to be heterosexual.
At this time, our field is well-aware of how heteronormativity is a problem. As those such as Jonathan Alexander, David Wallace, and Jacqueline Rhodes have pointed out, heteronormativity tends to constrain writers from not only finding audiences but also tends to prevent many writers from even picking up a pen in the first place! Rhetors and rhetoric are limited by social pressures to conform to what is deemed normal. Many people who engage in alternative forms of relating are closeted and do not feel they can openly write about or speak about their experiences; they do not feel they can share their unique insights with the public because they are afraid (and legitimately so!) of the punishing forces of normativity.
Another theme that has been especially prevalent in the poly scholarship and that seems ripe for future attention by those in rhetoric and composition is the discussion of the proliferation of neologisms in the poly movement. Researchers such as Meg Barker have found that poly activists and poly practitioners are creating an alternative reality, through the coining of new words, where the core values of courage, empathy, peace, and honesty are promoted. So, what is this new language like? Today I’ll give you two examples of new words from the movement.
Compersion. Compersion means the opposite of jealousy. Compersion describes the feeling of joy a person feels because their partner is enjoying love, sex, companionship, intimacy, or some other positive experience with someone else besides themself. When people ask me what compersion is, I often refer them to the word compassion, because I think it’s a near-synonym. Compersion is a compassionate approach, because it allows one’s partner to enjoy freedom. It must be noted, too, that compersion may not always be felt immediately or always by poly practitioners—but compersion is usually a goal or an intention.
Another example from the new language of polyamory: Metamour. This term means: the lover of my lover. This word does the valuable cultural work of replacing terms such as “mistress” or “slut” or “the other woman.” Metamour replaces the dominant language of affairs and infidelities. In using the respectful term metamour, the partner of a partner is not portrayed as the dark, mysterious enemy—on the contrary, this person is a valued member of a loving community.
As scholars in polyamory studies have pointed out, the new terms sprouting from the poly movement are noticeably different from the language of mononormativity, which, they argue, is a way of thinking and speaking that, because it springs from the industrial age of capitalism, there is a focus on competition for resources—“resources” meaning people and love. In mononormativity, people are seen not as autonomous, miraculous beings, but rather as pawns that should be manipulated. In the language of mononormativity, the goal is to “win” or “capture” or “steal” someone’s love; and to “cheat” on someone is to cheat the very rules of the game—a game totally steeped in economics. It is a language of dominance, fear, paranoia, deceit, and even violence. While the language of polyamory is a language based on the principle of abundance, the language of mononormativity is based on the principle of scarcity. While the language of polyamory is a language of equality, monormativity is that of hierarchy where relationships become a strategic game, where the goal is to become the “best” or “only” or “most” in a partner’s eyes, to the exclusion of all others.
Researchers in rhetoric and composition can analyze these new words that the polyamorous are creating, asking how this rhetoric is changing the cultural paradigm for relating.
Now I’d like to discuss the glue that holds my whole project together: “relationship literacy.” Relationship literacy refers to the reflexive, critical fluency with which learners can understand, analyze, discuss, and reflect upon their own as well as others’ relationship styles, choices, practices, values, and ethics. People who have made a commitment to acquire relationship literacy understand more clearly than most how relationships, particularly romantic or intimate relationships, are constrained or supported by cultural norms. Mononormativity and heteronormativity are two of the negative results of mass quantities of people lacking relationship literacy. When people are ignorant about the possibilities for healthy relating in an intimate manner, then fear and even hatred arises.
What we know about how to form and maintain bonds with others is not simply a personal choice or a natural or unremarkable situation, but rather the bonds we make are heavily conditioned by cultural discourses that are often unseen and unremarked upon. Romantic relationships, whether polyamorous, monogamous, or whatever, are by no means “natural” states of being. As queer and literary theorists Michael Warner and Judith Butler have demonstrated, our mononormative matrix is one that did not just spontaneously erupt, but it took and takes careful maintenance and regulation. If monogamy were the natural state, no such promoting or policing would be required, because all people would simply choose this way of life—and that would be the end of story. But, based on data gathered from various fields such as psychology, we see how that’s not how it is, that’s not how the story goes. In one article, for example, the following estimates were given: the proportion of people in consensually non-monogamous relationships in the U.S. vary from 15–28 percent of heterosexual couples, 20-28% of lesbian couples, and 50-65% of gay male couples (Weitzman). These are big numbers! So, why do so many people keep these arrangements secret? And why isn’t it common knowledge that there are so many people who engage in various forms of non-monogamy? The answer is simple: monomormativity. The idea that the only right way to do relationships is be monogamous…and to do anything else is crazy, immoral, immature, diseased, pathetic, weak-willed, etc. Under these conditions, you can see how scary it would be to come out of the closet as non-monogamous, and face a tremendous amount of potential social scorn.
But, facing social scorn is something the queer knows how to do. We could say it’s the queer’s specialty. One of the major aims of my project was to juxtapose the discourses of queer theory and polyamory studies, describing how they enrich and complicate each other.
However, one of the major AHA moments I had during this process was the realization that poly and queer are not the same thing. If a person is openly poly, it doesn’t mean that she or he would identify as queer. And, the reverse is also true: not all queers identify with the polyamory movement. Therefore, one of the concerns in my project has been to show how the terms “queer” and “poly” should not be seen as synonymous and that the practice or identity of polyamory should not necessarily be subsumed under the banner of queer. To automatically conflate these two social movements is inaccurate and misleading. Therefore, it is with a bit of caution that I suggest queer theory as being a rightful home for further research on polyamory. Even though thinking through poly with the lens of queer will be, I think, a productive and insightful strategy, it will be important to do this work in ways that critique and draw attention to the ways that being queer and being poly are distinct—though often related—ways of seeing and being in the world.
Another one of the AHA moments during composing my dissertation came when I realized that, at core, what I was doing was advocating a kind of spiritual activism. This quotation, by Analouise Keating, sums up what I realized I was doing: “Unlike “New Age” versions of spirituality, which focus almost exclusively on the personal (so that the goals become acquiring increased wealth, a “good life,” or other solipsistic materialist items), spiritual activism begins with the personal yet moves outward, acknowledging our radical interconnectedness. This is spirituality for social change, spirituality that recognizes the many differences among us yet insists on our commonalities and uses these commonalities as catalysts for transformation. What a contrast: while identity politics requires holding onto specific categories of identity, spiritual activism demands that we let them go.” (Keating, 2002, p. 18).
I think of “spiritual activism” as promoting the philosophy that the human being is not slotted into a single or even multiple identity categories (such as gay, straight, poly, white, black, middle-class, etc etc.) straining for individual “rights”, but, rather, each human is celebrated for her ability to be compassionate to others. Each human sees the purpose of each life as contributing to and being supported by networks of compassion and care. As Judith Butler (2004) urges repeatedly in Undoing Gender, supportive communities and networks of care are not a mere luxury, rather they must be seen as a necessity for supporting life because being embodied, gendered, and sexual ultimately create conditions of extreme vulnerability—and that vulnerability can only be balanced by being able to rely on supportive others.
Thus, this project is not overinvested in identifying or defining specific categories of identity. Yes, identity is important to think about, but let’s move beyond it too. As writing studies scholar Stephanie L. Kerschbaum (2012) has stated, differences between people and the identities of people are “not a stable thing or property” that can ever really be identified anyway, not ever really “fixed in place” (p. 619). Instead of being fixed and knowable, difference is something that is always moving, always in motion—always, ultimately, unknowable! We cannot ever fully pin down others. Moreover, we cannot even ever fully pin down ourselves! If we try to answer the questions: Who am I? Who are you?, we will always receive a partial answer, at best. Yes, we can (and maybe “should”?) attempt to learn about various concrete differences, concrete identities between people in order to improve our teaching methods and in order to improve our theoretical understandings of the way that writing, communication, and social interaction works. However, even the most comprehensive of knowledge about various identities will not be able to let us “know” others fully. Identities are always, in the end, rather mysterious, ephemeral energies. But this does not mean we cannot know something about them. We can. However, while it is absolutely imperative to take identities into account—to learn more about them and remember them in our formation of both practice and theory—identities are not everything. Categories are not everything. We cannot stop there.
Thus, somewhat paradoxically perhaps, my aim is not to promote an over-attention to the category of “polyamory” as a particular mode of subjectivity in this world (although such an outcome is no doubt an inevitable, important, and invigorating consequence!). Instead of focusing on just learning about poly folk, rhetoricians and compositionists can ask bigger, better questions about what the very concept of difference means, about what oppression and silence means, and how these discourses move and interact. Thus, while I do hope that teachers, administrators and others in our profession can become more comfortable in working with poly or queer-identified students or colleagues, I simultaneously suggest that importing the insights from polyamory studies within our field will allow new kinds of queerer, more vital questions to emerge—questions that lead us down new paths regarding ideology that we simply haven’t been able to go down before. These questions attend to an insidious hierarchy that has not yet been recognized by our field—a hierarchy that systematically marginalizes those who step outside the bounds of the monogamous couple. Through queer critique, we can better see how monogamy is compulsory, deeply embedded in the values and discourses dominant in American culture, as well as in many other cultures worldwide. In sum, while it is important to study, recognize, support, and sympathize with identity categories as they exist “out in the world” (since that world is the very same which populates our colleges and universities), it is also just as important, if not more important, to use our knowledge of identities in the greater service of asking what those identities can tell us about underlying cultural assumptions about the tensions between being an individual in this world and how individuals can then interact and connect with others. Through spiritual activism, we can work towards a new paradigm that recognizes the ultimate interconnectedness of every human being on this planet. And, not just as a metaphor, but really. We are all connected. In the words of singer songwriter Conor Oberst: “You and me, you and me, that is an awful lie. It’s I and I. It’s I and I.”
To conclude my talk today, I’d like to say a bit about the course I had the great pleasure of teaching this past spring, the course “Queer Writing.” The mission of the course was to provide students with the opportunity to reveal and debunk social norms in terms of sexuality and relationships. While a course such as this is certainly asking students to be vulnerable to the painful insight that they have been complicit in discourses of hierarchy and oppression, it is also asking students to take stock of the enormous power they can harness in the words they write and speak daily. In the class, we talked about how social rebellions happen. We talked about what Community means. And we used David Wallace’s notion of alternative rhetoric, to discuss how those who are marginalized can use language in order to break free from that marginalization, often in unexpected ways.
When I look back in time, what stands out for me is the level of intense connection I had with this particular group of students. Open dialogue was central to the execution of the course. We engaged in many many honest and sometimes heart-wrenching conversations. We tried to search for answers to the questions: “What is love?” “What is compassion?” “What and who are my priorities in life, and why?” “How have my priorities been shaped by cultural norms?” “What people or situations or groups or relationships have I shunned because I was afraid of being negatively judged by others?” Having open forums to discuss these very human issues set the stage for the intense level of engagement I felt my students demonstrated.
Moments stand out in my mind. For example, on one of the final days of the semester, one of my most socially conservative students approached me, asking to borrow one of the documentaries we had watched about polyamory. She said, “I don’t want to be poly, but I think what that those three people built was so beautiful to watch. They really love each other. I’m a Christian, and Christ teaches love. So, I can’t be against them!” She went on talking with me, musing over how strange it is that people only talk about romantic love as if can only happen between two people. “Why did they lie to us,” she asked? “Everybody lied—my parents, my teachers, everybody.” Or, around mid-semester, when one of my more boisterous male students stayed after class to confide in me that he was finding it difficult to study polyamory because, in high school, the “love of his life” had cheated on him. He just couldn’t get past that memory, he said. And polyamory, to him, seemed no better than cheating. The whole topic triggered an intense emotional reaction in him. This male student, this young man who had presented for weeks as fairly macho, broke down crying, as we talked. I told him that I too had been cheated on in the past, as well as done some cheating myself. We talked a long while about what we had in common, and what we had both experienced. We stayed in that classroom, talking, for about an hour, finally leaving only as students began filing in impatiently for another class.
A fitting way to end this talk, then, is not with my own voice but with the voice of one of my students, drawn from an end-of-the-semester evaluation. This quotation is the best case I can make for going out on a limb and teaching the risky but rewarding domain of queer theory and polyamory. And this one voice is symbolic of all the voices of all the students I’ve had over the years who have shaped me, who have given me the courage to do what I do—which is continue to write, think, learn, and advocate for a more expansive understanding of the power of love and compassion in this world.
This course has opened my eyes to the possibilities in new relationships. I learned that polyamory is a sensible option for those who feel one person is not enough to love. I am more open to the idea of change. I have a feeling that once polyamory, homosexuality, etc. go through the threshold in society, it will be accepted just like anything else—in time.
Anderlini D’Onofrio, Serena. (2004). “Polyamory,” in Jo Eadie (Ed.) Sexuality: The Essential Glossary, pp. 164–165. London: Arnold.
Butler, Judith. (2004). Undoing gender. New York: Routledge.
Keating, Analouise. (2002). “Charting pathways, marking thresholds…a warning, an introduction.” In Gloria Anzaldúa & AnaLouise Keating (Eds.), This bridge we called home: Radical visions for transformation (pp. 6–20). New York: Routledge.
Kerschbaum, Stephanie L. (2012). Avoiding the difference fixation: Identity categories, markers of difference, and the teaching of writing. College Composition and Communication, 63(4), 616–644.
Wallace, David L., & Alexander, Jonathan. (2009). Queer rhetorical agency: Questioning narratives of heteronormativity. JAC, 29(4), 793–820.
Weitzman, Geri. (2006). Therapy with clients who are bisexual and polyamorous. Journal of Bisexuality, 6(1/2), pp. 137–164.