From pair bonding to polyamory: A feminist critique of naturalizing discourses on monogamy and non-monogamy
Table of Contents
Feminism, Science, and the History of Sexuality: Reframing Compulsory Monogamy
The Monogamous Human?: The Naturalization of Coupling in Genomic Research
Against Compulsory Monogamy: The Naturalization of Non-Mononogamy in Woman - Centered P olyamory
Destabilizing Naturalizing Discourses on Monogamy: Anti-Monogamy and Bechdel’s Lesbianism as a Foucauld ian “Way of Life”
Appendix I I
1 . “‘The Monogamy Gene’: From Genetic Variation to Behavior”
2. “Random Mutations in the Length of the M icrosatellite
DNA Regions Modify Vole Social Behavior” Illustration from LiveScience Online Science News Magazine.
3 . A. Partner pre ference test cage set up (Ahern, et al. 2009, 181 ).
B. Partner preference test recording set up (Ahern, et al. 2009, 181).
4 . A - D Partner prefere nce test rec orded images (Ahern, et al.
2009 , 182 ).
5. “May Day Celebration” by Shoshana Rothaizer (Munson and Stelboum 1999, 123)
6. “Festival Showers” by Shoshana Rothaizer (Munson and Stelboum 1999, 124)
7. “Healing Hands” by Shoshana Rothaizer ( Munson and Stelboum 1999, 70)
8. “Three of Cups” by Shoshana Rothaizer (Munson and Stelboum 1999, 69)
9 . Excerpt from the graphic Introduction to The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For (Bechdel 2008, xvi)
10 . Frame from the graphic novella Serial Monogamy (Bechdel 1992, 109)
11 . Frame from the graphic novella Serial Monogamy (Bechdel 1992, 111)
12 . Frame from the graphic novella Serial Monogamy (Bechdel 1992, 112)
13 . Frame from the graphic novella Serial Monogamy (B echdel
1992 , 132)
14 . Frame from the graphic novella Serial Monogamy (Bechdel 1992, 133)
15 . “Mamma Mia” (Bechdel
16. “From the Sublime to the Ridiculous” (Bechdel 2008, 388)
17. “Economy of Scale” (Bechdel 2008, 234)
18. Excerpt from “Holiday on Ice” (Bechdel 2008, 235)
19. “Getting Respectable” (Bechdel 2008, 6)
20 . Frame from the graphic novella Flow State
(Bechdel 2000, 112)
21 . Excerpt from “Booked” (Bechdel 2008 , 247)
22 . Excerpt fr om the graphic Introduction to The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For (Bechdel 2008, xvii)
Introduction Monogamy is at once an invisible and highly contested norm. Its invisibility is marked by views on heterosexuality and the naturalness of coupled forms of social belonging. Historically, feminists have had a vexed relationship with monogamy, from debates over polygamy and patriarchal marriage in feminist movements of the late 19 th
century (Iversen 1997; Willey 2006) to contemporary debates over monogamy, polygamy, and polyamory. 1 Although feminist and scientific discourses on monogamy have long histories, this dissertation focuses on the contemporary moment, with brief forays into the 19 th
century, to explain aspects of monogamy’s modern meanings. Contemporary feminist writings on monogamy have sought to extend earlier feminist challenges to naturalizing assumptions about sexuality, bonding, and forms of belonging. Adrienne Rich’s critique of compulsory heterosexuality in her seminal essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (1980), is a paradigmatic example of those early challenges. In her essay Rich argued that rather than being natural or innate, heterosexuality is naturalized by making alternatives to it invisible. Over two decades later, contemporary feminists who are critical of monogamy have drawn on Rich’s strategy to make both heterosexuality and monogamy visible as culturally entrenched norms. Elizabeth Emens’ groundbreaking essay, “Monogamy’s Law: Compulsory Monogamy and Polyamorous At the same time, scientific discourse has had much to say about monogamy. That discourse shapes naturalizing conceptions of monogamy with which feminists are concerned and at the same time influences feminist discourses in complex ways. This dissertation situates itself within that intersection of feminist and scientific discourses around the question of monogamy.
Existence,” (2004) is a particularly compelling example of this later generation of feminist work. In “Monogamy’s Law,” Emens argues that the “twoness” requirement of marriage is as deeply embedded in US culture and law as the “different sex requirement” (281). Emens breaks monogamy down into two sets of ideals that she calls “super monogamy,” the ideal of having one partner for life, and “simple monogamy,” the ideal of sexual exclusivity within a given relationship. She further highlights the trap of these ideals: despite their widespread failure, evidenced by high rates of divorce and adultery respectively, most people aspire to both lifelong and sexually exclusive relationships (297-300). Rich articulated heterosexuality as a problem for feminists by arguing that it perpetuates the social and economic privilege of men and separates women from one another. Feminist critics of monogamy have similarly put monogamy on the map for feminism. These thinkers have passionately articulated the asymmetrical expectations and costs of monogamy for women and men (Murray 1995, 296-297; Robinson 1997, 145; Stelboum 1999, 43) and critiqued constructions of women as property (Fleming and Washburne 1977, 301; Tibbetts 2001, 1-2). They have explained how over-investment in one person can make it difficult to leave an abusive or unfulfilling relationship (Fleming and Washburne 1977, 270; Rust 1996, 132; Rosa 1994, 110) and can contribute to the devaluation of friendships and communities (Rosa 1994, 109-110; Jackson and Scott 2004). Many have also examined the roles of homophobia (Halpern 1999; Munson and Stelboum 1999; Vernalis 1999), biphobia (Murray 1995), and compulsory heterosexuality (Rosa 1994) in maintaining monogamy as “the only way” (Dal Vera
1999). Collectively, these thinkers make a powerful case for understanding monogamy as compulsory. While feminists have theorized monogamy as a powerful social norm, scientists study monogamy as a mating system or strategy (Herlihy 1995). The basis of the study of mating strategies is the evolutionary assumption that each individual organism, human or otherwise, has as its primary “goal” the perpetuation of its own genetic material through reproduction. A mating strategy evolves according to increased chances of species survival. For more than 90% of the animal kingdom, this means spreading genetic material as far and wide as possible (Fisher 2004, 133; Nair and Young 2006, 146-152). Scientists insist that some species, among which are humans, are naturally monogamous. 2 Monogamy, they argue, evolves in circumstances where having two “parents” to feed and protect offspring increases their chances of survival and thus the continuation of the species. 3 It is important to note that these scientific claims about the naturalness of monogamy in humans are inflected by understandings of sex and gender that make monogamy ideals different for males and females. Specifically, in studying monogamy, scientists generally look for different mating strategies in males and females and link these strategies to scientific descriptions of gametes: While no evolutionary basis for sexual exclusivity exists (Barash and Lipton 2001), coupling is considered normal for humans. 4 sperm are plentiful and mobile, hence males optimize their chances of reproduction by spreading their genetic material around. Eggs in females, on the other hand, are represented as both stationary and finite in number, so females presumably maximize their genetic survival by selectively choosing how to make the most of their seed. 5 These scientific strategies and
representations thus come to produce different gendered meanings for monogamy: monogamy is assumed a priori for females, while a variety of different theories emerge in different moments to explain male monogamy. 6 In this brief sketch of the two discursive domains covered by this dissertation—
feminist and scientific approaches to monogamy—it becomes clear that their understandings of monogamy and why we value it seem worlds apart. However, as I will argue in this dissertation, feminist challenges to monogamy sometimes use the same “monogamy language” as science. Again, Emens’ work is instructive in this regard. Emens’ systematic argument for thinking of monogamy as compulsory articulates the hinge that links naturalizing scientific discourse on monogamy with feminist challenges to it. That hinge is monogamy’s inverted reflection: a naturalized conception of polyamory. In Emens’ account, scientific naturalizing discourse plays a part in shaping “monogamy’s law,” while polyamory serves as a field of resistance to that naturalization. Her argument has two major components. First she offers an account of monogamy’s compulsory status as evidenced by laws. This account includes a brief review of romantic and scientific stories that naturalize coupling. Second, she posits “polyamorous existence” and the variety of practices of consensual non-monogamy it entails, 7 as an antidote to the problem of compulsory monogamy. She suggests that while the use of minoritizing rhetoric 8 may be the best strategy to facilitate legal recognition of non- dyadic relationships, universalizing rhetoric around polyamory powerfully destabilizes monogamy because “it challenges people to admit their own transgressions and violations of the law of monogamy” (344). This universalizing rhetoric suggests that everyone is
“really” non-monogamous, a claim that inverts the naturalizing claims of scientific discourse on monogamy, effectively naturalizing non-monogamy. Emens is not alone among feminists in seeing the power of universalizing and ultimately naturalizing claims about polyamory to challenge compulsory monogamy. I have critiqued her essay in some detail not to dismiss the powerful work it does in exposing the ruse of naturalized monogamy, but rather to open a space for a slightly different argument, and one I pursue in this dissertation. To be sure, I agree with Emens that scientific discourse plays an important role in naturalizing monogamy and rendering alternatives invisible, and I write this dissertation from the perspective that this scientific naturalization of monogamy has still been undertheorized. I also agree with Emens that the visibility of the wide range of relationship formations loosely grouped under the rubric of “polyamory” opens up possibilities for “choice” that are often foreclosed by the ubiquity of assumptions about the naturalness of monogamy. I also concur with feminist thinkers who have suggested that challenging the ideal of the couple opens up possibilities for structuring relationships in ways that can transform our worlds by decentering the domain of the nuclear family form (Goldman 1969; Rosa 1994). If feminists have critiqued monogamy as a set of norms and values that keeps women apart and reinforces various aspects of patriarchal and heteronormative culture, I argue that polyamory discourse offers a challenge to monogamous forms of sexual relating. Because I want to challenge the epistemic status accorded the natural, I do not agree that contesting monogamy by arguing for the naturalness of its mirror image, polyamory, is the answer to the problem of “monogamy’s law.”
This project offers a feminist perspective on the monogamy debate by reading compulsory monogamy and feminist polyamory through the naturalizing discourse of science. While feminists have critiqued monogamy in myriad ways, their attempts to challenge its compulsory status have often done so in ways that replicate the same naturalizing logic on which are built scientific claims that naturalize monogamy. While I share the feminist desire to challenge compulsory monogamy, I argue in this dissertation that feminist theorists of compulsory monogamy should challenge the naturalization of both monogamy and non-monogamy. I argue that the naturalization of both monogamy and non-monogamy relies on assumptions not only about monogamous dispositions or practices, but also about other naturalized differences. The scientific naturalization of coupling implicates monogamy in the production of normal and abnormal types through the use of analogies between categories of difference. My reading of the scientific analogizing frameworks that make monogamy appear to be natural can be extended to the naturalization of non-monogamy in feminist discourse as well. Specifically, in contemporary feminist polyamory literature, non-monogamy emerges as the “natural” mirror of monogamy constituted as natural by science. This mirroring effect leads me to question universalizing feminist rhetoric about polyamory. I argue that in their claims that non-monogamy is natural, poly 9 authors challenge the naturalness of monogamy at the risk of reproducing the logic of the analogizing frameworks of science. I propose that feminist theorists of compulsory monogamy resist naturalizing rhetoric as a strategy for destabilizing monogamy, and instead look to other resources for imagining an alternative to the paradigm of coupling. I propose that Michel Foucault’s “Friendship as a Way of Life” (1996) offers an ethical
framework for thinking about monogamy that destabilizes its normative status, without reproducing the logic embedded in naturalizing claims. This dissertation makes a unique contribution to the study of monogamy by bringing together three bodies of literature that have previously been kept apart. In Chapter One, “Feminism, Science, and the History of Sexuality: Reframing Compulsory Monogamy,” I position myself in relation to these three bodies of literature: feminist critiques of monogamy, literature on the place of science in the history of sexuality, and feminist science studies. First, feminist critiques of monogamy are my impetus for making the naturalization of monogamy an object of critical inquiry. To this field I offer an alternative account of what is at stake in destabilizing monogamy. Second, literature on the history of science and sexuality informs my understanding of scientific naturalization as an important site for the intersection of a seemingly endless proliferation of differences. To historians and theorists of sexuality and science I offer monogamy as an under-explored nodal point in the production of normal and abnormal bodies. Finally, feminist science studies provides the rationale for engaging scientific knowledge production directly, rather than focusing exclusively on naturalizing gestures that evoke “science” or “biology” within the broader culture. To feminist science studies, I offer a cautionary intervention into the retrieval of “the biological body,” suggesting that we must consider the often invisible meanings produced by analogizing frameworks in the space between “the body” and “the biological.” In the context of these three discursive fields, I propose a reframing of how we understand the scientific naturalization of monogamy. This reframing of scientific discourse has implications for how we think about the naturalizing rhetoric of feminists
around polyamory. Specifically, feminist science studies offers epistemological interventions that have illuminated the extent to which “what we know” depends upon “how we know,” to use Ruth Hubbard’s formulation (Hubbard 1990). If we “know” that monogamy is natural, how we know that matters. If we understand the “how” of knowing—what Emens calls “the dogged pursuit” (297) of explanations of human sexuality that naturalize monogamy—within a pathologizing framework of normalization, the “what”—naturalized monogamy—is implicated within the production of the normal. In this framing, the important question is no longer what possibilities are foreclosed by the naturalization of monogamy but, rather, in what ways does that naturalization rely on and reproduce dominant understandings of what and who is normal? The first question, which informs Emens’ analysis of compulsory monogamy, is a question about what we know and what that knowledge does. The second is a question about the pre-theoretical assumptions underlying that knowledge and the practices that produce it. Although I am certainly interested in answers to the first question, I am more concerned about the second question: how to think about the relation between the “what” and the “how” by focusing on the relation between epistemological frames and scientific practices. The shift from the “what” to the “how” describes the transition from Chapter One’s epistemological reframing of monogamy to the heart of the dissertation: my direct engagement with contemporary science on monogamy and genetics. In the second chapter, “The Monogamous Human?: The Naturalization of Coupling in Genomic Research,” I draw on primary science articles and my own interviews and observations in a laboratory on whose work recent reports of the discovery of a “monogamy gene” are
based to tell a story about how monogamy is naturalized. While it is not surprising, as Emens notes, that we can draw on a range of scientific stories about the naturalness of coupling, how those stories are established as scientific matters. Scientific authority is based, in large part, on the purported objectivity of its truth claims. This means, in practical terms, that the power of science depends on its ability to verify its findings. My laboratory ethnography begins, then, from a sense of the importance of how that “proof” or verification is practiced and established. I tell the story of one laboratory, Larry Young’s neuroscience laboratory at Emory University, chosen primarily because of the press attention it has received for its research on voles and monogamy. Rather than an argument about “what science says” about monogamy—it says a lot of things—this case study suggests a new way of understanding monogamy. Specifically, it suggests that reading scientific discourses and practices around non-monogamy alert to slippages that link it to other pathologized categories of difference may lead to productive strategies for re-theorizing the stakes of compulsory monogamy. In the laboratory on whose work I focus, the idea that the human is monogamous is the rationale for the use of the neurochemical process said to control it as the basis for research on psychiatric disorders. Because the proposition that the human is monogamous is an evolutionary claim, that which cannot be consolidated within the definition of monogamy becomes an evolutionarily anomaly, a problem to be explained. The Darwinian idea of natural selection through heredity predates the concept of genes, attributed to Mendel, and the concept of genes predates the discovery of DNA. 10 For as long as “genes” have existed as an idea—and now, defined as information bearing sections of DNA—they have been understood as the biological medium through which
traits are passed on and thus species evolve (Hubbard and Wald 1993). Within this laboratory, monogamy is said to be controlled by a genetic variation, or “gene.” Importantly, the genetic variation that they argue makes some voles non-monogamous is the biological problem they aim to “fix” in individuals diagnosed with “asocial” psychiatric “conditions” like autism. I argue that the model the laboratory uses implicitly pathologizes non-monogamy and that it does so by associating non-monogamy with stunted psychiatric and evolutionary development. This analogizing logic is evidenced not only in the laboratory’s framing of questions, but also in the experiments they use to verify the answers. In the third chapter, “Against Compulsory Monogamy: The Naturalization of Non-Mononogamy in Woman-Centered Polyamory Literature,” I draw on this critique of the naturalizing discourse and practice of science to address a similar problem in feminist celebrations of non-monogamy. I turn my attention to naturalizing rhetoric in feminist polyamory literature that draws on the kind of universalizing assumptions about non- monogamy I examined earlier. Examining poly literature as the inverted mirror of naturalizing discourses on monogamy reveals a parallel logic at work that links feminist naturalization of non-monogamy to scientific pro-monogamy claims. First, the moral hierarchy of monogamy and non-monogamy is reversed in the poly literature: if science says monogamy is good, poly feminists say monogamy is bad. However, certain assumptions about naturalized difference remain intact in both discourses. Second, if the inability to bond or fall in love is pathologized in scientific discourse on monogamy, a similar logic informs the romanticization of sexual promiscuity in poly literature as the flip side of pathologized sexual exclusivity. Specifically, science pathologizes non-
monogamy as the failure to bond through its association with autism. Similarly, feminist polyamory naturalizes non-monogamy as the refusal to be sexually exclusive through the romanticization of the idea of a primitive sexuality, a pre-cultural “before” of compulsory monogamy. In both contexts, non-monogamy is understood within the framework of an evolutionary economy that associates supposedly inferior types with one another (McWhorter 2009; Ordover 2003; Stepan 1996; Schiebinger 1993). Chapter Three explores the evolutionary logic that informs both science and feminist polyamory by linking sexuality to race as the primary mode through which poly naturalization of non-monogamy appears. I draw on histories of race and sexuality in science to frame my reading of naturalizing rhetoric in two popular woman-centered polyamory collections, alert to “racial resonances” (Somerville 1998; 2000). I argue that in these collections the denaturalization of monogamy relies in implicit and explicit ways on the reproduction of a racial economy that associates blackness with hyper-sexuality. Rather than making a claim about poly literature in general, I use my analysis of these examples to illustrate that naturalizing discourse on non-monogamy is as deeply embedded in conceptions of the normal and the analogizing frameworks that inform them as scientific naturalizing discourses on monogamy. If the first three chapters function primarily through the mode of critique, Chapter Four offers a constructive alternative to the naturalizing discourses of science and feminist polyamory. In the fourth Chapter, “Destabilizing Naturalizing Discourses on Monogamy: Anti-Monogamy and Bechdel’s Lesbianism as a Foucauldian ‘Way of Life,’” I read Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For (1983-2008) as providing a queer “lesbian” feminist ethics of anti-monogamy that resists recourse to
nature as justification for its claims. This decoupling of monogamy and biology upsets formulations set out in both genetics and polyamory. In place of naturalizing rhetoric, Bechdel offers us what we might call a Foucauldian “way of life” that opens up possibilities for creating new forms of relationships. Polyamory is a part of this world, but it is not the only alternative to monogamy, nor is it assumed to be transformative in itself. The decentering of the couple here happens through rendering the ideal of monogamy visible and through a proliferation of relationships—friendships, romances, households, communities—that are not premised on an ideal of “twoness.” I conclude by offering some thoughts about future directions for feminist theories of compulsory monogamy. I also return briefly to the history of sexuality to suggest that given the trajectory of naturalizing discourses on monogamy at the turn of the 21 st
century, monogamy (both as love and as sexual exclusivity) should be explored. The historical relationship of these concepts to the idea of sexual instinct may help us to understand more about how the ideal of monogamy became biological and compulsory. Finally, I return to feminist science studies to propose a rethinking of the nature of “the biological.” I claimed at the outset that monogamy is both visible and highly contested. My dissertation will have shown that monogamy can be made visible and remain contested—that is to say, rendering its meanings and status less stable need not depend upon the authority of other naturalizing claims to challenge monogamy’s compulsory status.
Feminism, Science, and the History of Sexuality: Reframing Compulsory Monogamy
My project initially grew out of engagement with a diffuse body of literature that I term “feminist critiques of monogamy.” This literature is critical of the idea that monogamy serves women’s interests. These scholars regard monogamy, rather, as an institution or norm with which feminists should take issue. Following these thinkers I regard monogamy as a problem for feminism. Existing critiques have problematized monogamy in myriad ways and some have noted the naturalization of the ideal. 11 In this literature review, I seek to reframe compulsory monogamy. Following Foucault’s famous distinction between repressive and productive forms of power- knowledge, I argue that compulsory monogamy is more than a prohibition on non- monogamous alternatives, but rather constituted in part by a proliferation of discourses on the nature of monogamy (Foucault 1998). These discourses implicate monogamy in a production of normal and abnormal bodies marked by assumptions about the binary and analogous nature of difference. Following my review of feminist critiques of monogamy, I offer a sketch of monogamy’s relevance to histories of the emergence of sexuality through scientific naturalization in the 19 th century. Finally, I offer a review of feminist science studies to frame my engagement with contemporary scientific discourse and practice.
However, the literature’s collective theorization of monogamy’s compulsory status is inattentive to how monogamy becomes naturalized.
Feminist Critiques of Monogamy Feminist engagement with monogamy defies easy categorization. It is tempting to try to break the literature down into materialist, psychoanalytic, and philosophical perspectives. However, while certain authors may have various commitments to these or other primary disciplines, most of the analyses are interdisciplinary. And although the literature spans decades, it cannot readily be organized chronologically. It is also tempting to argue that the earliest critiques came out of white, Western, middle class heterosexual women’s dissatisfaction with being trapped at home and that later critiques came out of a succession of sexual liberation and identity movements. But this would oversimplify the interconnectedness of heterosexual and queer feminist critiques of monogamy and ignore the ways in which lesbianism was explored as an alternative to straight monogamous marriage (Fleming and Washburne 1977) and how heterosexual and same-sex marriage remain important to feminist critiques of monogamy (Emens 2004, 375). I organize my discussion here primarily around feminist concerns with monogamy’s relationship to compulsory heterosexuality and its institutionalization in marriage. I then offer a briefer discussion of feminist accounts of the roles of homophobia and biphobia in maintaining monogamy as “the only way” (Dal Vera 1999, 20). Feminists concerned to challenge or transform the institution of heterosexual marriage have had to look at monogamy. As one observer put it: One of the most significant rules imposed on this relationship [marriage] is that of monogamy, an extremely well-entrenched code, completely supported by law, religion, and custom. Upon this framework, taught by parents, schools, churches, synagogues, the law, medicine, and reinforced by the media, women and men are expected to build their lives. (Dilno 1978, 56-57)