This week’s post is an updating of a one that began as a paper I presented at the 2017 South Eastern Women’s Studies (SEWSA) Conference called Intentional Monogamy: Not Your Grandma’s Sexual Ethics. I’m thinking about monogamy as an act of queer intentionality.
Even before I started my MDiv at Mercer, I had been playing with God-talk (theology) in my curriculum theory writing. For example, I believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s notion of ethics and existentialist theologian Paul Tillich’s conceptualization of God and Christ are not just relevant to our world today, they are essential. Three semesters in to seminary, I’m just learning what I do not know about Christian Ethics, so I will start small, with the most common state of being in a relationship in Western practice—monogamy—I’m thinking about it in the context of the current issue of same-sex marriage. We have constructed a God to suit our dominant White Western culture, just as we have constructed normal, normative sexual ethics. The god we crafted has a preference, which we codified into morality, for matrimony. Marriage is one man, one woman, monogamous. You know 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). Schipper 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. Knowing Sarah, this in fact is romantic. One evening 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 and said, “Yeah, 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.”
My students 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 my simple answer to them). 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. We married on the day the US Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell, June 26, 2015.
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.
Schippers, M. (2016). Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Polyqueer Sexualities. New York: NYU Press.
This morning we found an abandoned kitten outside the apartment. Well, actually, Duncan the Scottie “treed” it under the stairs and I dug it out from among spider webs and dead leaves. If I could pause writing now to show you a video of the pandemonium that ensued, that would be better than I could describe it. Since I can’t, I’ll do my best. I walk in with a screaming 3-day old kitten that looks more like a baby skunk or possum or rat. I will say that Duncan and I were both fairly proud of ourselves for the rescue–he was prancing while I was still covered in webs and leaves, grinning from ear to ear. Sarah, determined that she’s about to die from an oncoming cold, is sitting on the couch with her phone in her hand about to call in sick to work. She never did make that call; the immune system kicks in like a machine when there’s something bigger than us involved.
Within seven and a half minutes, Sarah was out the door on the way to Kroger, having given me instructions to keep the kitten warm at all costs and whatever I do–do NOT name it. Within eleven more minutes, she was back with two packages of bottle droppers, a feeding syringe, and cat milk. I had no idea one could buy cat milk at Kroger. How she knew still baffles me. Nevertheless, we were feeding, then “pooping” a kitten. For you who are uninitiated, you don’t even want to know about that one. I looked at Sarah. His name is Spike, I said.
Fast forward nine hours. Past the hot water bottle and the shoe box. Past packing up a diaper bag for a 4 ounce cat. Past a math department taking and a sorority adopting a kitten. Past the creation of its own Facebook page (which she checked until midnight, delighting at every “Friend Accept.”). Past my special trip to Petsmart to get a proper kitten bottle and newborn formula. Past the dog deciding that it was his baby and going into protect mode. Fast forward to choir practice (You didn’t see that coming, did you?).
This wasn’t our usual choir practice–that would have been too easy with a yelping kitten in a Chaps shoe box. This was for a benefit concert of fifteen choirs at a Catholic church out in the middle of nowhere–I reckon it was in some netherworld between Kennesaw and Marietta. That’s the best I could tell since she was doing the driving with the gps in one hand. Sarah has an interactive relationship with her gps, whom she has named Pilar. Pilar seems to me to put us mostly in the range of the destination, which lets Sarah yell contradictions and alternate routes back at her. Pilar, recall, is actually a phone. So I’m not actually sure where the church is located since I decided that the best plan was for the kitten to sleep through as much of the practice as possible–and the best chance of THAT would be if he had a full belly. Again, the video version of her driving and navigating with an obstinate Pilar while I am force feeding a kitten who, if he had NOT been in shock would surely be now–would surely be so much more vivid. You’ll just have to picture that. Anyway, we eventually got there, along with 100 other cars who were picking up their children from the parochial school. Once we explained to the (probably) Italian man directing traffic–IN (probably) ITALIAN–that we were actually there for the choir, he stopped yelling at us–not unlike Sarah had been engaging with Pilar–and we parked next to our deacon Lynn.
So as Lynn carried in armloads of our music, we loaded up with the diaper bag and the Chaps box with the hot water bottle and Spike. Looking back, I’m trying to imagine how we looked, a couple going in that big sanctuary, one of us with diaper bag in tow the other trying to hold a box to minimize jostling around the baby inside. Thing is, I’m pretty sure we looked like a couple to anybody who was looking, and not all the choirs there were from open and affirming churches. That’s ok, though, because ours was, and they were pretty much enchanted by Spike. With one minor exception–Lynn was not a fan of his name. I think you should name him Chaps, she said, clearly inspired by his carrying box. I don’t know if Sarah believes it’s bad luck to change a name like I do, or if she, like me, somehow wanted to honor the way our deacon had just honored something of us, but she decided–and I agreed–that Chaps would make a perfectly fine middle name–IF the first name had additional syllables (two monosyllabic names just don’t sound right).
So, that is how our deacon named our love child Chaps, and his name became Spikemandius Chaps TBDLastName, the Feline.