Tag Archives: women

Poly Marriage: Narrow Views

Are you all sick of talking about marriage yet? Yes? Well, too bad. The fact is that we have a lot more to talk about, and it’s gonna keep getting complicated. Also, between all the gay marriage hoopla and my own impending nuptials, it’s of particular interest right now.


If you remember, when I wrote my piece on gay marriage, I talked a bit about how poly marriage is still illegal and we can’t call it “marriage equality” since we aren’t really talking about equality. Here, I’ll quote myself.

One thing that the gang on Sister Wives do though, that most folks pushing for gay marriage try their best not to do, is compare their situation to the gay marriage struggle. The comparison is easy to make. Gay people do not have the right to marry legally in most of this country. Polygamists also do not have the right to marry legally, however they have the added bonus of being able to be prosecuted for living as if they were married! Wowza! If three adult people decide to enter into a marriage-like agreement, even if they do not seek any legal spousal benefits for the third spouse, they can be prosecuted for that. Think about that for a second, when I did, it was probably the first time that I felt privileged as a queer person. I mean, my fiancee and I may never be able to share insurance, but no one is going to take me to jail for calling her my wife.

(It bares mentioning that that was not always the case, and historically many gay people were in fact locked up for the crime of having “indecent” relationships.)

And yet, when conservatives bring up polygamy in that “if we allow gays to get married, what’s next?” sort of way, the vocal majority of those pushing for gay marriage have one clearly resounding answer: We are nothing like them. They are icky. We absolutely oppose polygamy. We promise if you just let us nice, clean, polite, monogamous, gays get married, you’ll never have to worry about polygamy being legalized.

And this is what we call marriage equality? Does that sound anything like equality?

This week, I saw two different pieces talking about this very issue.

First up is Slate, which published a piece simply called Legalize Polygamy! Here’s a quote:

As a feminist, it’s easy and intuitive to support women who choose education, independence, and careers. It’s not as intuitive to support women who choose values and lifestyles that seem outdated or even sexist, but those women deserve our respect just as much as any others. It’s condescending, not supportive, to minimize them as mere “victims” without considering the possibility that some of them have simply made a different choice.

Jillian Keenan does not discuss polyamory at all (it’s worth mentioning that I didn’t really either) she is exclusively talking about polygamy. More than that, she’s talking about a specific kind of polygamy, polygyny, marriages where one man is married to multiple women simultaneously. She doesn’t touch on polyandry (one woman married to multiple men simultaneously), the possibility of queer polygamist unions, or the idea that 3 or more people might want to all be married to each other. Put simply, the issue is complicated, and she is looking at only one facet of it. I know some polyamorous people were quite upset by this – they felt like they’d been passed over, and in a way they have been. Keenan talks primarily about Mormon polygamy, and mentions Islamic polygamy briefly.

What Keenan does well in her piece is to respond to some of the prejudices against this kind of marriage. She makes arguments that I have made myself (legalizing polygamy would make it easier to find the child abusers) and responds to some of the arguments that I have found myself responding to. Because if you think that polygamist marriage should be illegal because it is a sexist institution, then, well, you have to make the majority of traditional marriage illegal. You have to make the Duggars’ marriage illegal. It’s definitely worth a quick read.

Of course, I’ve also heard the claim that polygyny is the “ultimate feminist institution” because you know, sister wives means lots of ladies helping each other out. That kind of logic only works if you assume that women need to have children and that only women can do things like homekeeping and childcare. Which, do we even need to talk about how that is a sexist stance?


And then, coming in on the other end of the spectrum, is this piece on The Stranger, with the delightful title “You May Now Kiss the Bride and the Other Bride and the Other Bride and the Other Groom; Why Poly Marriage Is Never Going to Happen

Mistress Matisse takes the exact opposite stance, she’s a polyamorous person, and she completely ignores the reality of polygamous marriage. Doesn’t even mention it, just like Keenan didn’t even mention polyamory. Mistress Matisse’s basic stance is this: poly relationships are far too complicated, and poly people far too unorganized, for a push for poly(amorous) marriage to ever happen. No worries! Gay marriage is as bad as it will get.

What I like about the piece is that she talks about many of the complexities that Keenan washed over. Ok, so you have three partners. Is that three separate marriages (all parties being married to each other individually)? or is it just one big marriage? Or what if one person wants to be married to two people but they don’t necessarily want to be married to each other? How would that work? And who gets to decide? And how will that decision bring more equality anyways? And then there’s this:

But being in love doesn’t have to include a ring or a big white cake. To be polyamorous is to let your heart grow to hold many loving relationships that come in different shapes and sizes. Once you’ve learned to do that, why would you try to squeeze it back down into a pattern built for two?


After reading both of these articles, I keep going back to how similar they are. Actually, they are completely different, they ignore opposite things, and they take very different positions. But they both start with a similar assumption: the institution of marriage is basically fine, and basically works well as what it is.

And I disagree. When conservative politicians cry “what’s next? poly marriage?” when we talk about gay marriage what they are really upset about is the idea that marriage, as an ideal, and as a civil institution, will be rethought. They are scared by the idea of people questioning what marriage means, what it’s role should be in society, and whether or not it should be elevated to the super-status it currently holds. They are afraid that we will look at “traditional” American marriage and say “hey wait a minute, this doesn’t make any sense! let’s take it apart and make something better!”


And that, in my opinion, is exactly what should be happening. Complete with complicated poly marriages, if people want them.

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Bad Feminists and Straw Feminists

I’m a little behind on writing this up (and I still owe you more installments on When Feminism Fails) but I want to talk to you briefly about some of the criticism of feminism, and when it comes from sources you might not expect.

I recently read this piece on Libby Ann’s fantastic blog, Love, Joy, Feminism, which talks about the argument over feminism in the atheist community. Now, I don’t identify as an atheist, and I don’t follow atheist blogs unless they also talk about something else which interests me (Libby Ann’s blog is a prime example of this) so while I had kind of heard there’d been some hoopla about the feminism going on I wasn’t familiar with the specifics.

If you are interested, I encourage you to go read that post. I think it is worth your time and I think Libby had some important things to say. Originally I thought I’d go point by point, with quotes and all that, but instead I’m going to try to (for once) keep this brief.

Basically, what is happening here is that some people in the atheist community (all the people Libby quotes are men, though the concept itself was created by a woman) are trying to make a distinction between two kinds of feminism that they see as completely different and somewhat opposed to each other. They call these two kinds of feminism “equity feminism” and “gender feminism”. It needs to be noted right off the bat that all the people who believe that feminism breaks down into these two categories, all those people consider themselves to be “equity feminists.” The people who they would categorize as “gender feminists” do not see the world of feminism in terms of these two different categories, and we mostly just call ourselves, you know, feminists.

The first big problem is the way that they define these two different forms of feminism. In their world, equity feminism is considered with creating legal and social equality for women, and gender feminism is dumb and wrong. That’s a little bit of hyperbole, but it’s not too far off the mark. Rather than first defining the two things as “equity feminism thinks this and gender feminism thinks this” and THEN moving on to “and I’m an equity feminist and here’s why I think gender feminism is missing the mark” they include their criticisms of gender feminism right in their definitions. Ok, here’s just one quote to show you what I’m talking about:

Gender feminism is very different. It looks far less egalitarian, involves sharp criticism of gender roles, and seems to emphasize victimhood.

Libby personally doesn’t pick apart why that definition is a problem, but I want to. Because any time that your definition of your opposing view includes such negative language, you aren’t really engaging with it at all. Rather than explaining the criticism of gender roles, and then explaining why they find that to be less egalitarian, they start right off the bat telling you that gender feminism is NOT ABOUT EQUALITY.

Hm. Insisting that the majority of feminists aren’t interested in equality and just want to play the victim… does that sound familiar to you? Let’s come back to that in a minute.

Because that’s just the first problem. The second problem is the insistence that gender feminists want to deny that there are biological differences between men and women. Essentially, what they are saying is that if there aren’t more women engineers, it’s probably because women just aren’t as good at engineering as they are at some other things (like childcare!) and we just need to accept that men and women are different and let them do the things they are best suited for. As long as women have full legal rights, gender roles are a-ok with equity feminists.

So many issues here. First, sex and gender are two different things, and that is an important thing to know. When you use the words “sex” and “gender” interchangeably you create some very real problems (and I stop taking your argument seriously). Sex is biological, and gender is social. The two are often related, but not always. Also, because gender is a social construct, gender norms and expectations can vary greatly from culture to culture. If this is still confusing to anyone, here is an example:

Having breasts is part of being of the female sex, while wearing a bra is part of the female gender (in many parts of the world). Breasts are biological, whereas to claim that women naturally wear brassieres, as if it were somehow part of their biological make-up to do so, is preposterous. In many parts of the world women do not wear them, and while in our culture it is considered a feminine thing to do, it is entirely possible to still be female without one on, and it is also possible for male people to wear them.

The argument being made by the “equity feminists” (and it’s really the same argument being made by many supporters of old-school patriarchy) is that when we rail against gender roles, we’re trying to deny that there is any difference between men and women at all. That simply is not true. Because sex and gender are different things. And because we don’t any of us live in a vacuum. It is impossible to know whether women are by nature more nurturing then men are, as long as we encourage young girls to play with baby dolls and discourage young boys from doing the same. And even if you, as a parent, don’t tell your son not to play with baby dolls, unless you are parenting in the woods with only toys you made yourself by hand, the gender roles of the dominant American culture affect your child.

Go into a toy store. Go into the “pink” aisle. Tell me how many baby dolls there are. Now do the same in the “blue” aisle.

And if that weren’t enough, what are they using to back up their gender essentialist claims? Oh good, it’s evolutionary psychology. Here’s some criticism of evolutionary psychology that you might find interesting, including this gem about an evolutionary psychology study that claimed to FINALLY discover why girls prefer pink. (Spoiler, pink used to be considered a boy’s color, and the study makes no sense.) Recently I had to try to explain evolutionary psychology to a friend who was not familiar, and I broke it down like this:

Evolutionary psychology is when you take a look at your wife staying home to take care of the house and kids, and you wonder why that might be. Then you think “hey, maybe there’s an evolutionary reason she wants to do that! I bet that back during evolution times MEN were the ones hunting (cause men hunt now!) which lead me to believe that women stayed home with the kids (cause someone had to or they would have been eaten by a lion).” Then you take that faulty logic and REAPPLY it to the modern world, asserting that women EVOLVED to stay home with babies, and therefore that must be what they are best suited for now.

Most of the scientists I know just start laughing when evolutionary psychology comes up.


Ok so this still hasn’t been as brief as I would have liked, there was a lot to talk about. We need to bring it full circle now. Because the argument that some feminists are good and want equality and some feminists are bad and want to be victims… it’s an argument we’ve heard before in many different forms.

“now, when you say feminist, do you mean pro-equality, or pro-women?”

Bam. He was just asking a simple and honest question, which actually led to a very productive and positive conversation. However, wrapped up in that question were all of the reasons I didn’t call myself a feminist when I was fifteen, all of the reasons my mother doesn’t call herself a feminist now because “I’m for equality for everyone, not just women.” The raised eyebrows I was met with when I actually did start calling myself a feminist, the way I still get a little nervous dropping an f-bomn in public sometimes, and the reasons it is so effing important to keep doing it, they were all there in that simple little sentence.

Yes, I realize that quoting oneself is kind of ridiculous. This is from my piece about why it’s important to speak out for feminism and against patriarchy. Because that is all I could think about while I read about supposedly liberal-minded, equality-minded atheists arguing that the reason most of the speakers at atheist conventions are men is because speaking at conventions is “kind of a guy thing.” Because rather than saying that ALL FEMINISTS are bad, these “equity feminists” are setting themselves up as the “good feminists” and all others as the “bad feminists”… the same old straw feminists that we are all sick and tired of hearing about.

But other than that, other than that assertion that there is a small group of good feminists who think that voting rights are enough, their argument sounds EXACTLY the same as the tired old conservative patriarchal argument that women ought to just stay in their place.

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I have complicated feelings about that: when feminism fails, part one

The other day I spent wrote a long, somewhat rambling, post about why it is important for me to call myself a feminist, and why I encourage others with feminist principles and ideals to use the word themselves. The backlash against feminism (and feminists) is real and it is damaging, and it is important that we talk about it, and that we do not fear the straw feminists. I stand by that post.

What that post wasn’t about was dissecting the problems that occur within feminist communities. I briefly hinted at the idea that hey, shit ain’t perfect and neither are people, but I didn’t delve. Actually, I don’t like the “of course no movement is perfect” stance because it avoids talking about the actual ways in which movements can be flawed, how important they are, and what we can do to change them. So, let’s talk about a few of the problems that I see cropping up in feminism. To be clear, these are not problems that all feminist movements or all feminists have, but they are themes. They can exist in more mainstream feminist circles, as well as more radical feminist circles, and they are damaging to us all when they happen.

I’m going to tackle different failures in separate posts, as they are getting kind of long.

1. “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”

From my perspective, feminism is about recognizing and opposing patriarchy. It is a little bit like “oh hey look, I see a patriarchy! I’m against it! Now what am I going to do?” This isn’t how a lot of people see feminism though, a lot of people see feminism as first and foremost a struggle for women.

And you know what? Patriarchy oppresses a whole lot of women, all of them, in fact! And there are a lot of women! And many, many, maybe most, people see the world in terms of a gender binary: there are two types of people, men and women. So I could see how easy it would be to think that opposing the patriarchy and wanting equal rights for women are one and the same thing, I can totally see that. Most of the early leaders of feminism framed their struggle in that sense, and that is literally where the word takes its meaning from.

However, patriarchy doesn’t just hurt women. I believe that if you are against oppression you are against oppression period, not just for people who look like you, live like you, or have bodies like yours (more on that later). There’s a pretty clear loser when we make feminism exclusively about women. Have you guessed it yet? It is so obvious. That’s right, it is our trans* and intersex friends and allies.

First of all, the wrath of patriarchy falls the hardest on folks who don’t fit into the heteronormitive, male-female, binary framework upon which it is built. Trans* people, almost be definition, are hated by patriarchy. They receive the brunt of the abuse, and often the dominant patriarchal narrative would seek to either ignore their existence, or make them actually not exist. The rate at which trans people are murdered should terrify you. If we are against patriarchy, we need to be these people’s champions. When we sweep them under the rug saying “oh well it’s such a small percentage, when we’re done with equal rights for women we will totally work on that” we fail.

Secondly, we need to talk about reproductive health. And when I say reproductive health, I mean everyone’s reproductive health, not just people who identify as women. I am sick and tired of reading about the struggle for women to maintain reproductive rights. Maybe those on the other side of it think this is about women, but we need to be smarter and more inclusive than that. The reality is that some people who do not identify as – and simply are not – women have uteruses and vaginas. When we make having female reproductive equipment synonymous with being a woman we ignore and belittle the experiences of many people. People, who as we’ve already discussed, get stepped on by patriarchy even more than cis-gendered women do. Yes, access to birth control and pregnancy termination services are important things, but they are not important things for women alone.

Those things could just be mistakes made by well-meaning feminists who just aren’t thinking. Often they can be corrected simply by bringing the issue up. I’ve seen people make these mistakes, and hell I’ve made similar mistakes, and what I see is that in generally when they are pointed out, people are ready to wise up. When I say something about “women’s rights” and then catch the eye of a trans* friend who is just as affected by these issues as I am, I feel bad about that and I try to correct it. We can keep doing that, all of us. Let’s do that.

There is, however, something more sinister that we do need to talk about. I got the following comment on Facebook, from a close friend who I have a lot of respect for:

“But the extreme “feminists” that absolutely hate trans* people and don’t want us to have equality definitely exist.”

Yep. This person is totally right. There are some feminists who aren’t making an honest mistake when they talk about feminism in terms of women, there are feminists who really want feminism to be exclusively about helping women. I’m not going to unpack the reasons behind their prejudices completely, because frankly, it doesn’t all make sense to me. This is going to come up again and again, but in my life, the experience of being oppressed always makes me more empathetic to other oppressed people. What it never does is make me feel competitive with other oppressed people, as if equality were a limited resources and I needed to try to get more of it than them. But there are people who seem to feel this way, and I keep not getting it. There are also some feminist, cis-gendered women, who seem to feel especially and particularly threatened by trans* women. These women seem to see trans* women as wolves in sheep’s clothing. It’s as if they live in a world where the major force in patriarchy is the penis and that by identifying as women and (possibly) having penises trans women are sneaking weapons into safe spaces. It probably goes without saying that they feel even more threatened by queer trans* women.

(Because, you know, that’s totally fair, I can totally see how you should try to kick people who suffer oppression from all different angles in our patriarchal society out of your club that is against patriarchy. I’m not sure, can everyone read the sarcasm on that?)

First of all, that just isn’t how it is. Patriarchy isn’t propagated by penises alone, in fact I would go so far as to say they aren’t even a major player in the propagation of patriarchy (although many a penis-having patriarch would like to think otherwise). Secondly, this idea, the idea that ones genitals are the most important thing and make a person good or bad, safe or unsafe. Oh hell. Do I even have to say it? You guys. THIS IS A SEXIST IDEA. It is contradictory to all of our ideology to say that we are in a special cis-ladies only club and no one with the wrong junk is allowed in. Unless of course your ideology is self-serving and doesn’t care about the suffering of others, doesn’t seek to end inequality but only to elevate yourself on the ladder of inequality. And if that is your ideology, than I (and all of my totally awesome non-binary friends) don’t want to play with you.

For this reason, many people who support not only women’s rights but trans* people’s rights refer to themselves as trans* feminists. I don’t do that most of the time for two reasons, I think that supporting the rights of trans* people should  be inherent in the definition of feminism, and also I think that it kind of is. Hating someone based on their genitals is sexism. Feminism is against sexism. I don’t want to cave to the crappy definition of sexism that a bunch of jerks have.

(I didn’t include a break down on the different between sex and gender in this post because I thought it was probably unnecessary. If I’m wrong about that, let me know in the comments, and I’ll try to write about it or point you in the right direction for further reading in the future.)

Next time: Anti-racism and Feminism! Wahoo!

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