Friday, April 15, 2011

Gender Normativisms of Alt. Lifestyle In-Groups

It's pretty easy to see what the gender norms of the overall culture are: Men are in-charge, women trail behind. Men are aggressive pursuers, women sit back and pick & choose. It's summed up quite nicely in the first Back to the Future movie, where the main character gets asked to a dance by the woman asking him to ask her to the dance. My first thought when I saw this scene was 'Why can't she just ask him?' And thus began my appreciation of feminist studies.
Yet, isn't there a similar standard within alternative lifestyle communities? As a SF bay area polyamorist, my experience has been that women have a lot more liberty to be polyamorous (seek out multiple partners) than men do. Klesse (2010) identifies a similar theme in bisexual non-monogamous households, where men suffer from more scrutiny than women do about their sexuality. My experience parallels that observation, where the kind of feedback that a man gets from exploring other partnerships is concern over his existing partners, whereas a woman gets a lot of supporting feedback from finding multiple partners. Kleese identified the same trend, however exemplified from my experience. In my experiences with the poly community I don't think any man would be ostracized based solely on norms, but the norms would inform an individual male's interaction with the community.
It's one of the main reasons I'm not a part of the community any more.
Yet in creating these norms, isn't the poly community doing to itself exactly what they criticize the outside world is doing? It seems to me that a breakdown of internal norms is in order; yet norms are what hold communities together, common ideas/themes/experiences/beliefs, Mayhap there's a balancing act that allows for inclusion without filtered perception? That's probably asking a lot, especially from a psychological perspective.
Maybe then, that's the purpose of policy? Discrimination laws exist to mitigate the group-to-group tensions, but still allow for groups to exist. Indeed polyamorists don't have much in the way of state/national policy protections, but I think poly's are well suited to developing communities that can address in-group norms effectively. Since polyamory relies on strong communication and collaboration skills it seems like a natural fit.
Now, the question, how interested are poly people in creating that? Yes and no. As Aviram (2010) points out, polyamory has been informed by a highly individualistic attitude and approach (sci-fi, geek, and alternative spirituality cultures), yet this individualism creates a rift in unifying polyamorists. I hit on this in my previous post, Framing Polyamory Within Non-Monogamy, where there's conflicting views on polyamory presented by Anapol (2010) and Easton & Hardy (2009), where polyamory does fit into that individualistic, and relative, experience that lacks proper definition. Held in contrast to Ritchie (2010) who demonstrates that there are consistent norms within polyamory.
The end result is rather a mess, with poly people objecting to the injustices that other poly people have experienced, the quintessential example being the 1999 case of April and Shane Divilbiss who had their children taken away by the state because of their lifestyle (Melby, 2007). Though few polyamorists could cite specific information from this case, or even know it by name, the cry of injustice from this case is uniform across polyamory and fertile ground for activism, yet nothing is really done about it from a political perspective. In addition to the individualism in polyamory, Aviram identifies a concern towards the larger outside scrutiny of authorities into their lives, and a fear about their ability to protect themselves and their loved ones. This mimics my experience with polyamory in-groups interaction, where poly units (be it dyadic, triadic, etc.) is resistant to developing a community dialog because of the scrutiny that the poly community will put on them.
This highlights the downside to taking an individualistic approach to defining an alternative lifestyle identity: The lack of commonality under norms creates an isolationist feel to the community, and a community lacking in that unity also lacks the level of collective safety to confront larger social issues, such as discrimination and family rights.
For me personally, it's hard to grapple with this. My own personal development has led me down a very individualistic path, yet somewhere along the way I developed a sense of internal safety that allows me to broadcast who I am, what I do, and what matters to me, to the outside world. I find myself conflicted by both approaches, as I don't want to see polyamory fall into social norms, yet I see those norms as a necessary step to provide polyamorists with the kind of cultural unity that is seen in the civil rights, feminist, and LGBT communities.
Also, can I please see more poly activist *men*? Thank you to all the women who do take the slings and arrows of being publicly poly, but I think there needs to be some men out there too!
References: *Author's note, for SF bay area polys I strongly encourage reading Aviram
Anapol, D. (2010). Polyamory in the 21st century: Love and intimacy with multiple partners. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Aviram, H. (2010). Geeks, goddesses, and green eggs: Political mobilization and the cultural locus of the polyamorous community in the San Francisco bay area. In M. Barker & D. Langdridge (Eds.) Understanding non-monogamies (pp. 87-93). New York, NY: Routledge.
Easton, D. & Hardy, J. (2009). The ethical slut: A practical guide to polyamory, open relationships & other adventures. Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts.
Kleese, C. (2010). [Post] feminism and bisexual polyamory. In M. Barker & D. Langdridge (Eds.) Understanding non-monogamies (pp. 109-120). New York, NY: Routledge.
Melby, T. (2007). Open relationships, open lives. Contemporary Sexuality, 41(1), 1, 4-6.
Ritchie, A. (2010). Discursive constructions of polyamory in mono-normative media culture. In M. Barker & D. Langdridge (Eds.) Understanding non-monogamies (pp. 46-51). New York, NY: Routledge.

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