Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Monogamous Privilege

Sunday I was sitting in my local Unitarian Universalist church listening to our co-minister's excellent sermon entitled, "Solidarity - A Compelling Quandry", during which he spoke at some length on the concept of privilege and how it prevents solidarity. He defined privilege as "unearned and often unconscious advantage that can lead to a sense of entitlement" and added that "some groups benefit from unearned advantages in our cultural system, meaning that their members acquire what’s been called 'an invisible package of assets' [P. McIntosh] without doing anything, per se, to deserve it. These groups might include those with male privilege, white privilege, heterosexual privilege, wealth or class privilege, Christian privilege, ablebodied privilege, etc."

To this list I would add monogamous, or "mono", privilege.

So how does mono privilege impact polyamorists? Alas, contradictory as it may seem to other UUs, I need look no further than my own UU church. Though my primary partner and I have had preliminary discussions with our co-ministers about the subject of polyamory and our desire to feel that our relationship orientation, if you will, is welcomed and supported by our church congregation, there is a lot of work to do in order to educate church leaders and help them overcome their discomfort with the subject. (Fortunately we do have support and help from Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness.)

Considering Unitarian Universalism's strong commitment to social justice, one would think that gaining acceptance and support for polyamorists would be relatively easy. Not so, or usually not so, despite that numerous "show of hands" polls at polyamory conferences have revealed that about one third of polyamorists identify as UU. Yet we are not assured that, like all the mono folks in attendance, we can sit in church with more than one significant other and hold hands without fear of notice. Mono couples, be they opposite sex, same sex, or interracial couples, can do this - but not we polyfolk.

One Sunday during the "sharing of joys and concerns" segment of the service, a married member of our congregation shared the following as her concern. One of her church friends has revealed that they are polyamorous. She finds this to be so troubling that it warranted her sharing it with the entire congregation.

I don't mean to attack Unitarian Universalism but instead mean to use my experience there as an example of just how widespread mono privilege really is. Throughout our larger society, examples of mono privilege are so numerous as to boggle the mind, but here are the big ones:
  • Child custody - very risky for poly parents who are at the mercy of family law judges and child welfare agencies who assume without proof that poly families are poor environments for raising children; the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom (NCSF) reports that in one 12 month period it fielded calls for assistance from 600 poly parents facing child custody challenges. Mono couples face no such challenges;
  • Marriage laws - For all the same reasons that same-sex couples are also discriminated against, only in this instance polyfolk in relationship with two or more partners are condemned by those who embrace same-sex monogamy;
  • Job security - Polyfolk who are out at work have reported, again according to NCSF, having been terminated or denied promotions purely on the grounds of their relationship orientation. No such problem for monofolk.
  • Acceptance by friends and family - Polyfolk and their loved ones often meet with condemnation and rejection when coming out as poly to friends and family, while mono couples are congratulated and celebrated upon their engagement, marriage, etc.
  • Public displays of affection - polyfolk are often hesitant to exhibit PDAs even when in public with only one partner for fear that someone they know will see them and assume they are cheating on another partner. Monofolk have no such concerns, assuming they are not cheating.
  • Zoning laws - Poly families can encounter difficulty in finding housing that permits more than two adults to occupy the same dwelling. No problem for monofolk.
I've certainly enjoyed mono privilege at times in my life - when I was married and before I became a practicing polyamorist. Though now avowedly polyamorous, I sometimes still do benefit from it owing to the form of poly relationship I prefer, i.e. an open primary dyad, (or couple). Evenso, I am committed to working to eliminate mono privilege and every other kind of discimination against polyamorous persons, largely via NCSF, UUPA, and the Institute for 21st Century Relationships (ITCR).


Dark Daughta said...

Thanks for this post and for the politicizing of the conversation by linking it to Peggy MacIntosh's great work on white privilege.

Have you ever thought of expanding this work to really get into describing the privileges attached to performing monogamy?

There are so many people in blogland and real time who could benefit from reading something like this.

Thanks again. darkdaughta

ShaunPhilly said...

This is an issue I am starting to think more about now, and thank you for sharing. I think this issue will become more pronounced in the future, especially as polyamory starts to seep into mainstream consciousness.

Our little family (5 of us, essentially) have have little problems so far, but we do worry about exposure in terms of job security and such. We shall see what the future brings.