Article Thumbnail

Let’s Not Do This ‘Radical Monogamy’ Bullshit

The well-meaning term is bound to excite the reactionary right

Here at MEL, we like to keep on top of the latest trends in sex and dating. We’d never want you to feel uninformed in a conversation around those topics. Sadly, in this case, that means we need to try and unpack an idea described as “radical monogamy.” I blame VICE for bringing it up.

On its face, “radical monogamy” is a contradiction in terms. The radical attacks and inverts old hierarchies and norms, while monogamy is so deeply entrenched in the culture as to form a societal bedrock: Unless informed otherwise, we presume that a romantic couple’s relationship forbids the possibility (in principle) of either person having sexual contact with anyone else. Depending on your own point-of-view, this can be seen as either a good, healthy, “normal” arrangement, or a stifling, archaic, inequitable nightmare. But! You could also just let people dictate these boundaries for themselves, while figuring out which are best for you.

Of course, if monogamy were the sole available structure for love and intimacy, you wouldn’t need to append a big, weighty adjective to it. As made clear in LGBTQ activist Robyn Ochs’ coining of the expression “radical monogamy,” such analysis emerges in response to the community formed by non-monogamous and polyamorous individuals — those who date and have sex outside of a primary partnership. The use of “radical” in Ochs’ definition aims to encompass the monogamous couples who considered venturing outside that dynamic (and, in some cases, tried it) but ultimately returned to a condition of exclusivity. From the outside, though, there is no appreciable difference. It’s kind of like when Gwenyth Paltrow and Chris Martin announced they were “consciously uncoupling,” which translated to “getting divorced.”

I’m not going to sit here and claim that non-monogamy is all that radical, either. And I have a bone to pick with the polyamorists who act like they belong to some kind of marginalized class because they sleep around or maintain several partners. Still, poly life is an alternative to the dominant modes of personal attraction. Insofar as they have to purposefully reject monogamy to achieve fulfillment, it seems that certain monogamists now feel the urge to signal their rejection of that ideal. Forums like the r/monogamy subreddit have dabbled in this area for a while, with some not only exalting traditional bonds but maligning open variants as destructive and cruel. For them, failures of non-monogamy are proof positive that the old, established ways are better. 

Ochs no doubt had good intentions when she came up with “radical monogamy” — all she’s talking about falls under the general rubric of introspection and mindfulness. Too bad the phrase is perfectly tailored for reactionaries disgusted and threatened by queer, fluid or experimental forms of attachment. In the wrong hands, it would be of a piece with every other shitpost advocating a “return” to gender essentialism, white nativism, even feudal monarchy. 

If you click through on the first tweet in this article, you’ll see it was posted by the politics editor at the ultra-conservative, often misleading Breitbart News, and that she’s attempting to draw a hard line between the faithfully married on the right and the hedonistic sluts on the left. Monogamy is an accepted standard in her ideological circle, but they’d like it more if it somehow hurt or triggered the non-monogamous. That’s not the case at all — so they’ll have to astroturf this particular battle, with as many buzzwords and straw-man memes they can muster.  

Or — and this may be the most radical solution of all — we don’t let that happen. We don’t allow ourselves to be sucked into a semantic debate over a flimsy bit of jargon. And we sure as hell don’t build our relationships in concerted opposition to one another’s. Conceptualize yours however you like, but I doubt you’re doing something that merits a new entry in the dictionary.