Rebranding polyamory does women no favours | Julie Bindel

It’s not my business how many partners people have, but let’s not pretend that this will bring sexual equality to relationships

Polyamory is the latest subversive and a la mode sexual practice to receive extensive media coverage. It appeals as a subject for to those interested in alternative lifestyles, but also attracts commentary from some deeply unpleasant folk who have trashed it alongside gay marriage. “What next?” ask the bigoted opponents of equal marriage. “Polygamy and marriage to your brother/cat/hedge trimmer?”

It is neither my business or concern as to how many sexual partners anyone has at any one time, and I genuinely could not care less how folk organise their relationships. But the co-opting and rebranding of polygamy, so that it loses its nasty association with the oppression of the most disadvantaged women, is as irresponsible as suggesting that because some women chose to enter high-end prostitution as a social experiment, all prostitution is radical and harmless.

Caroline Humphrey, a professor of collaborative anthropology at Cambridge University, has argued in favour of the legalisation of polygamy because, according to a number of women in polygamous marriages in Russia, “half a good man is better than none at all”. While polyamory is not the same as traditional polygamy – which has been practised for centuries under a strict code of patriarchy in communities where women and children have few if any rights – the co-opting of the sanitised version will further normalise a practice that is anything but liberating for women in this arrangement.

There is also the assumption that polyamory is an invention of a set of too-cool-for-school hipsters, who have recently discovered that exclusive couple-type relationships are so last season. However, it was radical feminists in the 1970s onwards that developed the notion of non-monogamy as a way to challenge patriarchal heterosexuality. The definition of polyamory as “ethical non-monogamy” currently doing the rounds sticks in my craw. Non-monogamy was deeply ethical. One could have as many sexual partners as desired but everything was honest and above board, with no one being deceived.

The type of non-monogamy radical feminists developed and practised involved no men. We were all lesbians starting off on a fairly equal playing field. Some of us involved with leftwing politics had previously been witness to or victims of men who had sexual access to as many women as they wanted, while women waited for her one partner to get round to paying her attention. In the meantime, women were pitted against each other while the men played a subtle game of divide and rule, and there were plenty of women to do the washing, childcare and provide emotional and sexual support for these oh-so alternative men.

The women were not necessarily any more sexually liberated than their married, monogamous sisters; in fact they would quite often complain of being treated far worse than a wife. It not only gave men permission to sleep around, but left women experiencing dreadful feelings of anxiety, low self-esteem and lack of confidence.

Elisabeth Sheff, a US-based sociologist who has studied polyamorous families since the mid-1990s, found that “despite the pronounced importance of gender equality to polyamorists”, it is not unusual for men to be drawn to it because they believe that it will lead to sex with lots of women. The modern proponents of polyamory tend to ignore gender dynamics as if patriarchy and the sexual inequality that it produces has disappeared. Many also forget that its practice today, unlike polygamy, is the choice of overwhelmingly white, affluent, university educated and privileged folk, with too much time on their hands.

My scepticism about polyamory is not about being anti-sex or stuffy, and I wish good luck to those in relationships, for love, sex or whatever, with five, six or 20 other folk. But let’s not pretend it will bring on the revolution any time soon. A true sexual revolution will have happened when there is consent and equality in every sexual encounter. Until then, polygamy is simply another way in which to have relationships under a system that gives significant sexual power to men over women.


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Gender stereotyping is unhelpful and counter-productive – whoever’s doing it | Deborah Orr

Assuming that men are not responsible for their actions harms them just as much as it harms women

How much do the reactions of a particular and self-selecting group to an unusual and disturbing incident tell us about our culture generally? Photographs of a teenage girl seemingly performing a public sex act on a young man at a festival in Ireland last weekend were published by a third party on the internet, where they were quickly shared on social networks. Other people offered their opinions. Many condemned the female as “disgusting”, while the male not only escaped censure but was even described as a ”hero” or a “legend”.

This, it is now being said, is a “typical” example of age-old sexist double-standards, whereby women are condemned for flamboyant expressions of their sexuality while men are admired. What rubbish. This may be the view of an ignorant, immature and vocal minority with more technology than sense. But otherwise, there is nothing typical about any part of this episode, and it should not be seen as an invitation to bang on a feminist drum any more than it should be seen as an opportunity to jeer at and judge a young woman. Far more telling, and far more cheering, is the fact that the mainstream media has been low-key in its reporting of the incident and its aftermath, realising that witch-hunts are not any longer something that responsible adults should indulge in or encourage.

It’s true that a female has been subjected to vicious criticism, while, as my colleague Sarah Ditum put it in the New Statesman, “in the world of popular sexual mores, public oral sex is apparently seen as pretty much neutral for men”. But is that true? Am I that out of touch? My impression is that the vast majority of men wouldn’t in fact give or receive oral sex in public, wouldn’t stand around taking snaps if they saw others doing so, wouldn’t put those pictures on the internet and wouldn’t go online to offer their uncharitable view on the matter. I just don’t believe that it’s useful to insist that general truths about contemporary sexual mores can be extrapolated from deliberate humiliation and cruelty by an almost universally condemned minority.

It has been made known that the girl is deeply distressed. It’s reported that she was hospitalised and sedated and that her blood is being tested, to see if her drink was spiked, not least because other photographs have emerged, of sexual harassment by a group of men, in an earlier incident that she had complained about. There is talk of designating all of the people who shared the images, especially the Belfast man who is accused of creating them, as publishers of child pornography, since the girl is under 18. The suspicion is that she has been manipulated, exploited, taken advantage of, because something made her vulnerable. Perhaps it was alcohol, taken by her knowingly. Perhaps alcohol or drugs were given to her without her knowledge, and with malicious intent. Either way, the man involved is no hero. He behaved appallingly.

Yet there is no suggestion that his outrageous actions are anything other than self-explanatory. Maybe that’s right. Maybe he has no excuse. Maybe he’s pleased with himself. But the idea seems to be that he was just doing what all men would do, given the “opportunity”. He wasn’t though, was he? To suggest that he was is a grotesque caricature, insulting to most men. Reaction to this case, unfortunately, reeks of misandry as well as misogyny.

Of course, it’s unfair that the man involved in the incident has not been showered with online disapprobation – no one denies that misogynists can express themselves online in a way that they can’t in real life, and for obvious reasons. However, he nevertheless doesn’t seem to be keen to capitalise on all of the “neutral” publicity. Instead, he is lying low. This suggests that he either knows that his behaviour is inexcusable, or understands at least that most people, far from seeing him as a hero or a legend, would be disgusted by him.

Can I be so bold as to suggest the unthinkable – that he might have regrets, might be appalled by his own behaviour, might be frightened for the consequences that may yet come, and be miserable at home with a family who are horrified by his appalling lapse? Maybe he was also drunk, or on drugs. Maybe he finds the people who call him “legend” repulsive. Who knows? There’s been a distinct lack of curiosity about any of that.

Because that’s the trouble with gender blaming. All misogynists are also misandrists. All misandrists are also misogynists. Saving your misanthropy for only one gender is just a not-so-fine distinction that leaves you stereotyping half of all people and archetyping the other half. Elevating individuals to archetypes may be less negative and nasty than reducing them to stereotypes. But it’s still a refusal to see people for who they are, insisting instead that we are all identical microcosms representing all of our sex.

The type of sexual misogyny that has been meted out to this unlucky woman has come to be known as “slut-shaming”. But slut-shaming is a prima facie example of the Janus-faced nature of woman-hating. Slut-shaming, by implication, doesn’t just unfairly and negatively stereotype women. It portrays men as unwilling and unable to control their sexual impulses, reliant on women to take responsibility for policing their sexual relationships, therefore making them blameless when sexual acts or sexual relationships are unsatisfying or abusive.

Anyone who indulges in “slut-shaming”, somewhat paradoxically, has an unhelpfully and unfeasibly low opinion of what should be expected of men, and an unhelpfully and unfeasibly high opinion of what should be expected of women. This is not to say that it isn’t important to identify and challenge this kind of reductive and biased name-calling. On the contrary, the debate is skewed and divisive, precisely because it concentrates far too much on exonerating all women and condemning all men. It does exactly what the thing it professes to hate does, and insists women are always hapless victims and men are always ruthless aggressors.

And as for the fact that women “slut-shame” too, often with great enthusiasm? Well, that’s the fault of “the patriarchy”, whose greatest triumph as an oppressor of women, as a destroyer of female agency, seems at present to be its ability to reassure susceptible women that men are always to blame.

There’s a querulous passivity to some feminist debate; an endless search to put misogyny up on a podium of shame, rather than just drown it in the majority’s common-sense attitude. Common sense tells us that misogynistic people are insecure. Cultural noise – broadly feminist – tells us that misogynistic people are powerful and dominating. But it’s a bit silly really, a bit counterproductive, telling insecure men with feelings of inadequacy that there’s this way of thinking about women that will make them feel powerful. The worst of men – and women – sign up to active misogyny and misandry, and they are then the people whose behaviour increasingly fuels debate. It’s a downward, negative, abject spiral, that risks always seeking difference instead of similarity.

Common sense also tells us that public oral sex is not to be encouraged, that public embarrassment of people who make mistakes is horrible, that drinking or drugging yourself or others into insensibility, or taking advantage of those who do, is vile and that young people, male or female, sometimes behave in a confused or immature fashion. There is no great divide in opinion between men and women on these matters. So what on earth is the benefit to anyone of making out that there is?


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How can I persuade my father and brother to treat my mother better?

A woman is upset that her father and brother treat her mother disrespectfully, but is it up to the mum to change her life?

The Dilemma For years my mum has confided in my brother and me about the troubles of her marriage to our dad, and it is worse now that we are in our 20s. My dad took early retirement and spends his days following his own interests: running, cycling or obsessively doing crosswords. Just as when he worked, he leaves my mum to do all the housework and upkeep for him and my brother. When I visit what used to be home, it feels loveless and hollow, and my mum is becoming increasingly distressed at the life she has been left with. My dad is inflexible and emotionally barren, with no kind of physical intimacy with her. Sadly, my brother is seeing callous relationships as the norm.

I don’t know what I can do to show my brother and dad that their treatment of my mum is outdated, sexist and cruel. She is mocked for her opinions or for being “melodramatic”. Leaving home and seeing the reality of relationships that normal people share illustrates their lack of compassion verges on the sociopathic to me. I don’t know how to make my father and brother see themselves in a different light and act more like a family, or how to rescue my mum from growing lonely.

Mariella replies You’ve set yourself quite a challenge. Much as the adults who raise us can only look on, aghast at our more outlandish life choices, so we can only gently nudge our parents toward other lifestyles. Your mum is living like many of her generation, and more distressingly a high percentage of subsequent generations, still trying to work out how feminist triumph turned into an unmanageable to-do list featuring career, family, domestic life and partnership. Behind many front doors the advances of the last 70 years are still not in evidence. Whether it’s as simple as the division of domestic chores or childcare, or the dark despair of domestic abuse, the chasm between the haves and have nots is surprisingly large. Visiting a friend the other day I admired a display of orchids in a neighbouring cottage window. She told me that the woman who lived there, when she wasn’t being beaten and abused by her husband, lovingly nurtured them. The orchids clearly were the repositories for her dreams.

The shocking truth is that your mother, merely disparaged and undervalued, actually has it easy. For one in five women in this modern, emancipated, forward-looking country, daily life is a ritual of misery. I’m not saying that the extremity of the crimes against women mean that you shouldn’t highlight your mum’s unhappy circumstances, but it’s important that none of us assume that all women are free of such tyranny. Your observations about your mum’s life are reflected in homes up and down the country to a greater or lesser extent.

The domestic servitude seems less of an issue than your father’s disconnection from the barest minimum of relationship requirements. Her circumstances will only change when she develops an active interest in leading a life of her own, not passively replacing her husband’s expectations with her daughter’s. There are women (and men) who choose to keep their lives small, tucked under the radar and safely ritualised in the monotony of a daily routine. We fought for the right to choose, not to dictate, and your mother’s choice is as valid as any other, if presently unfashionable.

Your father and brother will only change when their needs are no longer being serviced, and you gusting in on a breeze of liberation from time to time is unlikely to have much effect. Ultimately it’s not your battle. If your mum doesn’t feel her life is of greater value, then all you can do is try to raise her expectations. It always struck me as ironic that so many of the earliest feminists waved their banners like Winifred Banks in Mary Poppins and then rushed home to rustle up the tea. In a liberal society, women’s rights can’t be foisted on their subjects any more than domestic drudgery.

We all have choices, no matter how difficult. If your mum is to reinvent her maturity, she needs to taste the possibilities that freedom can bring. Whether she develops an interest in gardening, joins the National Trust or the WI, watches the entire Nora Ephron canon, joins a walking group or takes a once-in-a-lifetime trip, she needs a transporting activity that overrides her inbuilt domestic impulse. None of us has the capacity to see over the rainbow, but a taste of what might lie there is usually enough to set us on a journey of discovery.


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‘Hookup culture’ isn’t a cultural phenomenon: it’s just casual sex | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Women have been having casual sex for decades. So why is the US suddenly in the grip of a moral panic about it?

Although the silly season is well under way in Britain, we must spare a thought for our American friends, who this summer have been bombarded with a succession of fatuous trend pieces regarding college “hookup culture”. Most of them (take, for example, the New York Times article headlined Sex on Campus – She Can Play That Game, Too) have been underpinned by the puritan and scaremongery subtext of “look at all these rampantly screwing college women. Isn’t it weird?” To ramp up just how damaging no-strings-attached sex is for women, the trend-piece writer will often roll out an anonymous heartbroken source who really, secretly, just wants a boyfriend and doesn’t understand what all this humping business is about. And, suddenly, something that in Britain is nothing more than using someone for sex without undergoing the charade of having dinner with them first is graced with the label of a cultural phenomenon.

I was reminded of this late on Friday evening as my long-term boyfriend held back my hair while I vomited into one of those cardboard NHS potties and my phone buzzed and buzzed with what I suspected was a booty call (destined to go unanswered). Like many women I know, I get these from time to time, and, stomach bug or not, I never answer them. I should add that the calls are never from British men, who understand that implicit in the whole casual-sex arrangement is the caveat that they do not contact you three years down the line when you are in a happy relationship, or indeed ever. No, it’s always Italians who get in touch. Italians are rubbish at casual sex; they always want to go to dinner.

Meanwhile, America is grappling with a different aspect of “hookup culture”. The moral panic over sluttish young women engaging in no-strings-attached dalliances had been simmering for some time, but it was exacerbated last summer with the release of a book that was apocalyptically titled The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About Intimacy (speak for yourself, mate). The myth that women are unable to cope with sexual liaisons in which deep emotion is absent, that we crave love and tenderness in all encounters, is a deeply rooted one. I’d suggest that the religious right, with its strange notions regarding purity, has more than a passing interest in perpetuating it. Now, though, science is chipping away at its supposed justifications by finding that women’s sexual appetites could actually be more voracious and more varied than men’s. Indeed, a study quoted by US author Daniel Bergner apparently showed that, unlike heterosexual men (who were aroused only by images of women), women got the horn no matter who they were watching going at it. And that includes monkeys.

However, the very existence of the summer’s dubious “sex trend” is now being undermined. Sociologists have inconveniently found that today’s college students aren’t actually having any more sex than their predecessors, with only 32% saying that they had had more than one partner in the last year. Professor Monto of the University of Portland, Oregon said: “I was alive during the 1980s, and it doesn’t seem all that different.”

Indeed, in this austerity era of drainpipe jeans and royalist hagiography, the only real difference to be perceived between now and the 80s is that we have texting. We know the presence of a mobile phone to be catnip to trend-piece journalists, and indeed, the glut of coverage that new app Tinder has received bears this out. Tinder is a straight person’s Grindr, allowing one to peruse local hotties for the purposes of meeting up and bonking. Just what the uptake will be, or the impact, if any, on British sexual mores, is anyone’s guess, but it is one of many pieces of software that now claim to be able to mediate your sex life (another, entitled Spreadsheets, hilariously claims that it can measure your sexual prowess by monitoring “thrusts per minute”). Even Guardian Soulmates, this newspaper’s own dating service, which ranks users’ profiles by their fluctuating popularity, can serve as a marketplace for those sexually rather than romantically inclined (a friend recently boasted me that she had “bedded the guy who was No 3″).

Ignoring for a moment the presence of this technology, we have to ask ourselves whether, as a society, reaching our sexual peak in the 1980s is really such a good thing. Did our progress halt a mere 20 years after the sexual revolution? If so, our stalling seems to have taken place around the same time that pornography, that great liberator of women, exploded into the mainstream.

Meanwhile, an explicit picture showing a young woman administering oral sex to a man at a festival went viral on Twitter this week, with users condemning in depressingly predictable terms the girl as a “slut” and the young man, you guessed it, a “lad”. It is perhaps stating the obvious to say reactions such as these do little to recommend us as a forward-thinking, sexually progressive society.

There’s always been a presumption that subsequent generations will be wilder and more promiscuous than their predecessors (and quite right too), and in this we’re failing. Given the choice between a society where women are publicly shamed for expressing their sexuality, and a permissive “hookup culture”, I’ll take the latter. I’m starting to wish it really did exist. Because if we’ve reached the zenith of sexual liberation right now, then, quite frankly, we’re screwed.


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