Intentional Monogamy: Not Your Grandma’s Sexual Ethics
My paper at the 2017 South Eastern Women’s Studies (SEWSA) Conference is Intentional Monogamy in the Age of Tinder: Queer Theology and Re-thinking Christian Sexual Ethics. That one title contains at least four ideas for an academic paper~~and here in one place I’m going to try to pull them together to look again at a concept that we take so much for granted we do it without thinking. Monogamy.
I’ve begun framing my academic research over the last four years with theology; I even did a stint at the Candler School of Theology at Emory. For example, I believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion of ethics and existentialist theologian Paul Tillich’s conceptualization of God and “the” Christ are not just relevant our world today, they are essential. They are my starting point; from them I move to Feminist Theology and Queer Theology, which are topics for another day. Just know that theology~as I define it the search for the nature of God~in its various perspectives has allowed me to get here. Where is here? Queering Christian Sexual Ethics. And to do delve into that field, I will start small, with the most common state of being in a relationship in Western practice~monogamy~and look at it through a lens of queer feminist theology.
Queer theology is not, for the uninitiated, the same as LGBTQ Religious Studies, although it can, I suppose, be included within that broad field. It does not, concern itself with What The Bible Says About Homosexuality, about which Rev. Dr. Daniel Helminiak has written so concisely. Queer theology is radically different. For example, the late Professor Marcella Althaus-Reid named God queer and proposed an Indecent Theology in which sexuality, theology, and politics are intertwined. In such discussions, one can consider the trans nature of God. Paul Tillich describes a postmodern god and helps us think of God not as an old white guy with a beard who looks after us as his children, or better, as no image at all~just James Earl Jones’s commanding voice. Neither is God our “mother,” in a gendered turn of the conventional. And, it isn’t that God transcends gender, that is, to go beyond its range or limits. God is transgender, for God flows across genders in ways that defy categories. Godself is fluid and trans, and in this, God is transgressive. This is Althaus-Reid’s notion of a Queer God, where queer is transgressive and political, gender and sexuality-bending~~and also playful. This is not a god that man has worked for 3,000 years to craft in his own image. This is God that can hold being the Ground of Being. I want this God on my side.
And, just as over the last centuries we have constructed a God who suits dominant White Western cultures, we have also constructed normal, normative sexual ethics~~and we have strategically bound them to the search for God, to theology. The god we crafted has a preference, which we codified into morality, for what humans do when we get naked with one another. To queer Christian Sexual Ethics, then, is to associate it with Queer Theology, to transgress what humankind sanctions in the name of God.
To make the discussion less abstract, I look at the singularly sanctioned form of marriage relationship for mainstream Christians: monogamy, the practice of having one partner at one time. In case you’ve forgotten the official sanction of monogamy, here it is again. It’s called the Wedding Vow:
“I, ___, take thee, ___, to be my wedded husband/wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I pledge thee my faith [or] pledge myself to you” (https://www.theknot.com/content/traditional-wedding-vows-from-various-religions).
In Mimi Schippers Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Poly Queer Sexualities (2016), she extends Adrienne Rich’s idea of compulsory heterosexuality to include compulsory monogamy as a “regime of sexual normalcy” (Kindle loc 183) and offers a critique of mononormativity. She points out, There have been very few theoretical interrogations of how monogamy is implicated in and productive of gender, race, and sexual hierarchies or the role of monogamy as an organizing rationale for regimes of normalcy and social structures of inequality (loc 254). She conducts this interrogation of monogamy to explore the possibilities of polyqueer sexualities~relationship forms and practices that include more than two people in them~for shattering inequalities. She positions monogamy, rightly I believe, as an institutionalized social structure that bolsters power relations; this is mononormativity. I suppose because I identify as monogamous I felt as I read that Schippers was throwing out the baby with the bath water. She didn’t leave much space for conceptualizing a postmodern, queer monogamy. Intentional monogamy is queer monogamy–even if the participants are heterosexual, cis-gender participants. It holds similar queer possibilities for disruption. How? Because of its intentional nature. Hence, intentionality is transgressive.
Intentional monogamy confronts monogamy by default, which renders monogamy invisible, unconsidered. Also by default is the assumed and legitimized feature of monogamous couples to reproduce the heterosexual, heteronormative family. There is a whole other discussion here~for another time~on how the re-production of “the family” also reproduces the hierarchies and inequities~personal, political, institutionalized, time-honored. There is a lot hinging on monogamy.
So, in this space, I want to look finally at the intentional part of Intentional Monogamy. For this, I need a story. In Beyond Monogamy, Schippers makes a very interesting point that I will admit I had not thought about, but of course should have: that cheating narratives are important to maintaining mononormativity and leaving monogamy invisible as the hegemonic norm (loc 742). Cheating is the threat that keeps couples within monogamous bounds. Cheating holds monogamy together. It is to relationships what sin is to Christianity. Like sin, cheating is a transgression of the vow to be in right relation. But again, what if we flip this thought so that intentionality is the transgressive turn?
About a year and a half into our relationship, Sarah and I began discussing the terms for our future together. Those of you who know Sarah know that this in fact is romantic. One evening we were talking about the nature and dynamics of our relationship when she entered the room, stopped in the middle of it, and said, “I’m monogamous.” I half-looked up from emails or the tv, or whatever I was doing during our casual discussion and said, “Yes, so am I.” And that, as they say, is when it started getting real. She got my complete attention by telling me that to her, I wasn’t at a place to make that assertion. It’s true: I had been living under a few assumptions, stretching all the way back to adolescence and dating. Yet I thought our own commitment had been understood when we had made a commitment. Exclusivity, to me, had implied monogamy, and that was her point. Implied monogamy was not sufficient grounds for a long term relationship. I argued, cajoled, reasoned~~used all my skills to persuade her~~and myself~~that I was a confirmed monogamist. And then she said something so shocking and profound that I knew it to be true: You say you are monogamous when what you really want is someone who won’t cheat on you.
Sarah’s declaration of monogamy, her intentionality, was a disruption of heteronormative compulsory institutional default relationship form. for me, it troubled the cheating narrative, which played right into reinforcing hetero- and mononormativity. From Beyond Monogamy: Monogamy needs cheating in a fundamental way. In addition to serving as the demonized opposite of monogamy, the mark of the cheater is used to push individuals to conform to monogamous behavior and monogamous appearances (loc 748). Wow. You have to confront your monogamous privilege just like you do your white privilege. You have to know that there are other ways of being in relationships–ways that involve more than two partners, she said, and then you can come back to monogamy. Of course, my first question for her was, Good lord, do I have to try them? Not necessarily, she said, just as long as you know enough to make an informed decision.
In my undergraduate classes, students will often ask whether anyone can be queer; that is, can you be a straight cis-person and be queer. Sometimes I give them a simple answer. Queer has a political requirement to it; it is purposefully disruptive of normative structures (yes, that’s part of the simple answer). It is intentional. So, I tell them, to be queer, you have to believe yourself to be. And that is part of how monogamy can be a queer act~~in its intentionality. Monogamy is not a condition to be bound to, a “till death” sentence of imbalanced power. It is a state of free, into which we might freely enter. After about a month of my coming to learn that, Sarah was satisfied.
What’s next? I aim to situate this discussion~~with more theorizing for my day job~~into a deep look into Christian Sexual Ethics, a field that looks how we can humanely and kindly treat each other in our sexuality. Untheorized, monogamy brings its heteronormative baggage into sexual ethics, thereby invalidating its very underpinnings. There’s a famous line from Our Town: People are meant to go through life two by two. ‘Taint natural to be lonesome. Along my journey toward monogamy, I have learned that ‘taint necessarily natural to go two by two, but if we want to, it’s queerer than we might think.