Both in everyday life and scholarly discourse, monogamists and polyamorists tend to unfavorably portray one another as somehow flawed, misguided, or, in a word, “inferior.” This article documents and critically examines two pairs of interlocked psychosocial attitudes—monopride/polyphobia and polypride/monophobia—mediating this predicament of mutual competition in the context of Western mononormative culture. The ideological nature of these “mono–poly wars” is demonstrated through a brief review of empirical literature on the psychological health and relationship quality of monogamous and polyamorous individuals and couples. The article concludes by outlining a critical pluralist approach that eschews universalizing hierarchies between monogamy and polyamory, and provides tools for making qualitative distinctions within and among relational styles.
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The term polyamory is a hybrid word etymologically meaning “many loves.” Also known as responsible nonmonogamy (e.g., Anapol 1997; Klesse 2006), polyamory is both a philosophy of love and “a relationship orientation that assumes that it is possible to love many people and to maintain multiple intimate and sexual relationships” (Barker 2005, p. 75; cf. Sheff 2006). Polyamory has also been described as a form of nonmonogamy grounded on the belief in “people’s capacity to share and multiply their love in honest and consensual ways” (Anderlini-D’Onofrio 2004, p. 165). As discussed below, polyamory is usually contrasted to not only monogamy and polygamy, but also swinging, casual sex, and promiscuity.
Although this paper cannot address relational malleability and gender differences, research shows that not only can males and females undergo important changes in their sexual and relational orientations (for discussions, see Conley et al. 2012c; Ferrer, in press), but also that individual women show greater sexual plasticity than men over time arguably due to a variety of evolutionary and sociocultural forces (Baumeister 2000).
In what follows, I differentiate between monogamists/polyamorists (who ideologically hold their preferred relational style as natural, superior, or advantageous) and monogamous/polyamorous (who do not).
As Rambukkana (2015) argued, the culturally prevalent, essentializing portrayal of polygamy as patriarchal polygyny perpetuates mononormative values. Interestingly, both monogamous and polyamorous individuals tend to position themselves as superior to polygamous people (e.g., Klesse 2006; Ritchie 2010).
Nonmonogamy is a more encompassing term than polyamory. Whereas the former includes any type of nonmonogamous relationship—including open marriage, swinging, and promiscuity—the latter is normally used to refer to the consensual, long-term maintenance of more than one romantic, sexual, and/or emotional bond (see Barker and Langdridge 2010a, b; Haritaworn et al. 2006; Klesse 2006; Sheff 2006). Although this essay mostly focuses on polyamory, much of what is said about the “mono–poly wars” may well apply to other nonmonogamies.
The following account is informed by almost three decades of personal exchanges in Spain and the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as many European (e.g., England, Germany, Italy), Asian (e.g., Japan, India, Indonesia), and Central and South American countries (e.g., Mexico, Peru, Argentina). Although aspects of the following discussion might apply to other cultures, I limit its validity claims to modern Western countries (e.g., European nations, Canada, the United States).
Challenging the standard evolutionary narrative of an ancestral pair-bonding culture and archaically seated sexual jealousy, Ryan and Jethá (2010) argued for a far more sexually promiscuous human pre-historic past and a link between the origins of patriarchy and the emergence of agriculture about ten thousand years ago; for critiques of this proposal, see Ellsworth (2011) and Saxon (2011). Although the emergence of agriculture (and thus of human settlements and private property) very likely increased men’s concern for paternity and thus sexual possessiveness (e.g., Stearns 2009), the exact (pre-)historical origins of sexual jealousy are probably manifold and far from clear-cut; after all, many hunter-gatherer cultures practice marriage (Walker et al. 2011) and sexual jealousy exists even in cultures practicing shared paternity (Beckerman and Valentine 2002).
For a witty—and deliberately polemical—defense of adultery in the context of modern Western mononormative culture, see Kipnis (2003).
As a student of religion, I have always been fascinated by the parallels between the “mono–poly wars” and the many-centuries-long conflict between monotheism and polytheism (e.g., Kirsch 2004; Paper 2005), for example, regarding the superiority of the One over the Many, questions around the exclusivity of loving devotion, God’s expressed jealousy toward other Gods, and so forth. The religious underpinnings of the “mono–poly wars” are complex and surely deserve an extended discussion; for some directions, see Rycenga (1995), Anderlini-D’Onofrio (2004), Goss (2004), Willey (2006), and Kolesar (2010).
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Ferrer, J.N. Mononormativity, Polypride, and the “Mono–Poly Wars”. Sexuality & Culture 22, 817–836 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-017-9494-y
- Critical pluralism