Tuesday, March 23, 2010

What Do We Know About Open Relationships?

Cross posted from my Media Justice column

If you are on Twitter, you are already in the know of all the triflin’ hashtags that have been floating around regarding relationships. There’s #RelationshipRules, #DontWifeHer, #HollaFail, #IKnewUWereGayWhen, #DontTrustHer, and #SheAHoIf. Often when these pop up in my timeline it is because one of several radical women of Color* I follow is speaking to how ridiculous and oppressive the hashtags are and what it says about the people who are utilizing them. I hardly pay them any mind, yet I was reminded of them when I heard a story last week.

As the Oscar’s were recently awarded, there were several stories that focused on the “open relationship” between Oscar-winner Mo’Nique and her husband Sid Hicks. Mo’Nique defines cheating as “when you lie and are deceitful not when you have sex outside of the marriage.” Open to Mo’Nique is “no secrets.” She shares here with Barbara Walters in her interview, which you can watch below. Her conversation about her relationship starts at about the 7-minute mark.

People have several opinions, and misconceptions, about open relationships. As someone who has been in an open relationship in the past, and remains interested in them for the future, I’m in support of them. I’ve heard several stereotypes about open relationships: they only work in “queer partnering,” that they are not relationships people of Color who are heterosexual would engage in, the relationships allow for “cheating” between partners, and they simply “won’t work.” Enter those trifling twitter hashtags.

Ironically, what I’ve found in my experience is that these are often the fears of other people who project their own issues onto the relationship of others. There is a difference between “cheating” (lying about one’s actions and desires with another person(s)), polygamy (multiple marriages of women to one man; polygyny is multiple marriages of men to one woman), and polyamory (open relationships which take many forms). I really appreciate this compilation of terms and concepts regarding polyamory that includes definitions. I find the definitions accessible and clearly explained.

Many people who may not have conversations often about relationships that are non-monogamous may think of open relationships and automatically go to polygamy and the representations we have in our culture that represents this partnering. Big Love comes to mind. Other representations in the media include “Short Bus” by James Cameron Mitchell, and Spike Lee’s film “She Hate Me.” Which is a film that needs an examination all on its own because there are some problematic representations in the film. Yet, it is one of the few that have people of Color, even on a film list compiled of open relationships and polyamory.

There are limited narratives from polyamorous (poly for short) people and couples, but even more from poly people/couples that are people of Color. I think there has been more conversation among communities of Color about open relationships in the past 5 years. As books were written (or updated) about open relationships in the past 5 years, I was surprised of how color-free the narratives were. I reviewed the book “Opening Up: A Guide To Creating And Sustaining Open Relationships” 4 by Tristan Taormino (who had a handful of couples of Color she interviewed) and “The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships & Other Adventures” by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy. These two texts are more on the instructional tip than anything else and although they do offer some testimonies, really are created to allow readers the opportunity to decide if open relationships are for them and if so how to prepare and create them.

I suppose my “surprise” at the color-free discussion is because I know a lot of people of Color in open relationships and we talk about them! A brief conversation that comes to mind is the “Ask A Sex Goddess” column that used to be on Wiretap where a question about open relationships was addressed two years ago. One of the LatiNegr@s I featured last month is educator, artist and activist Ignacio Rivera, who provides workshops and consultation on a range of topics within the sexual science field and has shared the following about poly relationships:

“Polyamory goes beyond non-monogamy. It is negotiated, ethical non-monogamy.
Polyamory is the non-possessive, honest, responsible and ethical philosophy and practice of interacting intimately with multiple people simultaneously. It gives one the option of having relationships outside of social norms. Polyamory is from the root words Poly (meaning "many") and Amour (meaning "love/lovers"); hence "many loves" or Polyamory.

Polyamory is an umbrella term, it can mean many things, such as being in a triad (when there are three people who are intimate with each other), having a primary partner, being single but having multiple lovers or relationships. To us, revolutionary polyamory means purging the seeds of oppression that try to corner us into ownership, control of our bodies, and illusions of security through something outside of yourself.”

In addition, artist, activist, and educator Favianna Rodriguez has shared in her writing, “Let’s talk about sex! Latina girls still having more babies than any other teenage group” the following:

“This year I have been active about discussing alternative models of having relationships, considering that the dominant model we hear about relationships does not work for many of us. In fact, it does not work for about 50% of the population, if you take a look at how high divorce rates are. I have also been more active around learning more about my own sexuality, and challenging ourselves, as people of color, to reconsider sexuality as something that is constantly changing, adapting, being reinvented.

In our own communities (black and brown) I feel that we often regergitate [sic] heterosexist, oppressive models around sex, for example, in many brown families young women are not talked to about sex unless the message is "Don't have any!" There tends to be an emphasis on "waiting for marriage" for young Latinas, I mean, I definitely got conditioned that way, not by my parents, but by all the culture around me. I was also not encouraged to learn about masturbation, about open relationships, about questioning whether I liked men or women - I was conditioned to believe that I would fall in love with one really awesome guy, have babies with him and be monogamous, and that that should be one of my main life purposes. That's not where I am today, and at age 30, all I hear at family parties is "Favi when you gonna have your own babies! Cuando te casas??"

I’ve also found interesting conversations on a Blog Talk Radio show called Original Native Network hosted by Coach Khayr which aired October 29, 2009 called “Take It Off Thursday’s-Polyamory & People of Color” where people call in and share their experiences with choosing and creating polyamorous relationships. One of the things that really stood out to me hearing the callers and speakers share their perspectives on their open relationships were their relationships to spirituality, religion, and/or belief and value systems. These are not new conversations, what makes them new is the format that makes such conversations public.

So why are we excluded in such conversations. Honestly, I took three days to do some research, which included a google search, to find many of these quotes and resources, yet people who write books about a topic we have a lot to say about don’t or can’t find us? Were they looking for us? How does our omission from such discussions perpetuate the stereotypes I outlined above about open relationships?

At the end of the day, when will it be your business what someone else does in the privacy of their own home? What two, three, four, or more consenting adults choose is the best way to build together and raise a family is not really our business. Of all the abuses and neglect that children and youth face today, focusing on an “untraditional” partnering where people center love, trust, honesty, communication, and family seems moot.

Three months ago one of my homegirls asked me a question on the infamous formspring about open relationships. Here is a part of my response (just ignore that I don’t use the spell check feature when answering these questions!):

“i think that if you are clear about what it is you want, what it is your potential/current partner can offer and are honest with one another that it can and does work. i also think many people of Color who have opinions on it are very much unaware of what poly relationships are and confuse it with polygamy and cheating. i think they are also far too comfortable assuming they have control over other people's actions, and buying into the illusion that there is only one person who can fulfill everything we need in this lifetime from another person. talk about STRESS!!!

sometimes open relationships don't work for a lot of reasons, that are just the same as why monogamous relationships don't work (scheduling, values, belief systems, politics, family, dishonesty, death, changing needs etc.) but not because they are open. sometimes monogamous relationships [sic] dont work because they are not open!

what would happen if every person was raised with love and acceptance to our opinions of open relationships? i think for many people the fear of losing love, giving love, exchanging love is so overwhelming it leads us to want something that may not be very realistic for some people like monogamy.

i also think many people project their own ish onto the open relationships we may have. what if people not in our relationsip [sic] realized our relationships are about our needs not theirs? what if we all realized that we do what is best for us at that time and if having one or more primary partners or primary lovers or companions etc. is what is best for us that is what we need to do at that time. we are always evolving.

i also think monogamy is a result of colonization but that will take me on a tangent.”

I’ll pick up on that tangent for next week’s column where I share some of the research I looked into during graduate school regarding open relationships and cohabitation! In the meantime, what are some of your thoughts about open relationships? What conversations do you think are missing and need to occur? If you want to learn more about the topic I’d suggest taking a look at a few of the books on this list and also checking out the book “Vodou Love Magic: A Practical Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships” by Kenaz Filan a book which I personally adore and go back to often for guidance and opinion from a spiritual standpoint.

*Thanks to those radical women of Color who helped me remember those triflin’ hashtags SH, LV, and MP.

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