June 27, 2015
Freddie DeBoer just posted a piece on Politico titled, “It’s Time to Legalize Polygamy.” I respect Freddie’s work (and he’s been an excellent supporter of mine), and I think his arguments need to be taken seriously. He asks, “If my liberal friends recognize the legitimacy of free people who choose to form romantic partnerships with multiple partners, how can they deny them the right to the legal protections marriage affords?”
I see Freddie’s questions and provocations operating in a very particular sphere, one where the questions about defining and re-defining relationships hold sway. Like it or not, the recent Supreme Court decision about gay marriage ultimately came down to the question of what makes a family. The view, entirely a conservative and retrograde one, is that “Love makes a family.”
Those of us in Against Equality and elsewhere who have long been critical of gay marriage have argued that we, culture at large and/or the state, need to recognise different forms of relationships. By that, we don't mean to be prescriptive about what creates a family but to demand that the state not determine whether we live or die based on on what kinds of families or kinship groups we inhabit.
I’ve often been asked about my own views on polyamory and polygamy and Freddie’s post prompted a new rush of questions, so I thought it would be useful to put down some quick thoughts on the matter.
First, in terms of my own politics: I don’t care whether or not the state recognises polyamory or polygamy. What I work towards, in my writing and my activism, is a world where everyone has access to the basics that allow people their basic dignity: healthcare, the ability to cross borders without suspicion or dehumanisation, the right to a roof over one’s head without having to beg for support, and so on.
Secondly, and I think this will surprise a lot of people who, having read my work and sometimes identified me as an “ultra-leftist,” think of me as a particular kind of sex radical: I just don’t think that sex in itself constitutes a radical practice.
Following that, I don't think that polyamory or polygamy in any way disrupt capitalism itself, or in any way disturb the formation of a state which increasingly constitutes itself around particular kinds of filial relationships. Or, as I put it in this Against Equality interview: "You can marry naked and hanging upside down from a hot air balloon and share your marital bed with multiple strangers every day – none of that will change how the state endows your marriage with benefits it will not give to the unmarried."
In queer radical circles and in much of the left, the worlds in which I operate, there’s a widely held idea that one’s political radicalism can be attached to one’s sexual practices. This is why those who practice BDSM and are variously “sex positive” are often equated with left politics.1
But the sad truth that many of us learn after years in sexual playing fields (literally and figuratively) is that how many people you fuck has nothing to do with the extent to which you fuck up capitalism.
Similarly, you can read The Ethical Slut from page to page (I did, and it’s boring and prescriptive and insists on some weird hierarchies) and take it with you to your next orgy, but none of that will mean that you are in any way really violating anything more than perhaps the conservative principles you grow up with.
In many ways, when it comes to sex and sexuality, the Left makes the same mistake over and over again: it imagines that simply having violated the rules of the Conservative Right means that it is now setting about creating a new world order. This has led to the Left's greatest blind spot in social issues, Gay Marriage, which it fervently supports because it believes, in the most wrong-headed fashion, that the very fact of gays marrying each other is somehow disruptive to, well, something: Capitalism, perhaps, The World Order, the Christian Right. Something.
But the mere fact of the Right being against Gay Marriage does not make it a cause worth supporting, and I’ve pointed out the problems with the campaign here and in several other places.
And as anyone who has engaged in or studied sexuality and politics knows too well, the mere fact of unconventional sex has nothing to do with radical political disruptions.
We might recall, after all, that Obama is currently the first Black President largely because of a Republican sex scandal. His first opponent in a 2004 US senate race was Jack Ryan, who was then in the midst of a custody battle with ex-wife Jeri Ryan, known to many sci-fi fans (and remembered with great fervour) as Seven of Nine. Jeri Ryan revealed that her ex-husband had tried to make her engage in public sex acts in sex clubs across the globe.
Following the scandal, Ryan, was forced to withdraw and Alan Keyes stepped in as Obama's only rival. Keyes has always been an entertaining candidate, but even Keyes probably didn't take Keyes seriously and Obama won the race.
That, let me emphasise, was a Republican sex scandal. The same is true of Democrats, of course, including the much-forgiven Bill Clinton and scores of others. But, really, in terms of out-there sexual scandals, few have been able to match Ryan's story. I mean, come on: Paris, public sex, nudity (consider Seven of Ryan and how much we know about her anatomy). My point is simply that there's nothing inherently radical about sex and sexuality. Being into public sex didn't make Ryan any less of a capitalist. Being a monogamous partner doesn't mean your politics are any less radical and disruptive of capitalism (to be clear, I am by no means implying that Obama is the radical here).
And, to be clear: being a hella radical leftist who also has a great and interesting sex life says nothing about the inherently radical nature of sex. It just means you’re really, really hot and you should probably visit me soon.
This isn't just a finger-wagging exercise to tell queer radicals not to have so much sex. By all means, have all the sex you need and want, but don't mistake fucking for anything other than, well, fucking. There is a serious side to all this, too: Too often, we hear of people coming out into radical queer communities, often at very young ages, being told that they can't possibly be radical enough unless they've entered into polyamorous and orgiastic relationships. I've heard from too many people that they felt pressured, especially as young and vulnerable new activists, to be particular kinds of sexual beings and made to feel less political simply because a particular sex scene wasn't really their scene.
That needs to stop. The revolution will not come on the tidal wave of your next multiple orgasm had with your seven partners on the floor of your communal living space. It will only happen if you have an actual plan for destroying systems of oppression and exploitation.
Should we think about sex at all? Yes, absolutely. Let's all think and agitate collectively around how sex is deployed against the most vulnerable bodies, like people in prison. Let's all think long and hard about whether we really want to keep reifying the idea that sex offenders deserve to be raped in prison (and about the oppressive framework of the category of “sex offender” itself). Let's consider how to create a world where sex work and sex trade can flourish without coercion and demeaning people. By all means, please, let's not stop having sex, which can be riotous fun, and let's not stop thinking about sex in all its multiple forms. But stop pretending that sex is anything more than sex.
Your sex is not radical. Your politics can and should be. Consider the difference, and act upon it.
1See for instance, Margot Weiss’s excellent book, Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality, about which I interviewed her here. Weiss points out that BDSM communities in San Francisco, far from being politically radical, replicated forms of consumerism and engaged in practices that were often blatantly racist (and not ironically so, or with any intent to "subvert" the dominant paradigm).
Image: Bacchus with Nymphs and Cupid c. 1660 - Caesar Van Everdingen
This is a free piece intended to raise questions, not provide all the answers. If you're interested in learning more about the real history of various gay campaigns, like that of gay marriage, take a look at the Against Equality archives.
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