A philosopher makes the case for polyamory

A philosopher makes the case for polyamory




"It’s unhealthy to force people into a choice that might not fit them."

There is still a taboo around open relationships in our culture. People who openly practice nonmonogamy, if not quite ostracized, are certainly stereotyped.


This is part of the reason Carrie Jenkins, a philosophy professor at the University of British Columbia, has become a reluctant defender of polyamory. Jenkins, whose new book is called What Love Is: And What It Could Be, says our concept of romantic love is too narrow, too exclusive, too “mononormative.”


“The fact that the social construct excludes me is not a reason to feel like I'm doing something wrong,” she told me. “It's a reason to challenge the social construct.”


The simplest definition of polyamory is participation in multiple loving relationships at the same time. For the past four years, Jenkins has had both a loving husband and a loving boyfriend, and everyone knows about everyone else. There are no secrets, no deceptions, no jealousies. But, social stigmas being what they are, Jenkins spent several years hiding this part of her life. Even in the liberal enclave of academia, mononormativity persists. So she decided to write this book and, as she put it, “start a conversation.”


In this interview, I talk to Jenkins about what she hopes to accomplish with this book. I ask her what a properly expansive concept of love looks like, why it’s a mistake to reduce forms of love to sex, and what our culture gets right — and wrong — about monogamy.


Sean Illing


What distinguishes polyamory from other forms of nonmonogamy?


Carrie Jenkins


This is one of those difficult definitional questions. I can only tell you what it means to me. I think of it in terms of its etymology, which means multiple loves. I use it for myself because I'm in more than one loving relationship. So nonmonogamy more generally could include people who are in one loving relationship but they also have other sexual partners outside of that relationship — people who are swingers, for example.


Sean Illing


How long have you practiced polyamory?


Carrie Jenkins


I've been openly nonmonogamous for five or six years. Over the last four years, I’ve been involved in several long-term simultaneous relationships, and so the term polyamory has felt more appropriate.


Sean Illing


Do you object to monogamy on moral or philosophical grounds? Or do you just prefer polyamory?


Carrie Jenkins


I don't object to monogamy at all. I just don't choose it for myself. I think monogamy is the best fit for a lot of people. I'm just not one of those people.


Sean Illing


So you're not anti-monogamy; you're just pro-polyamory.


Carrie Jenkins


Yes, exactly. I'm not anti-anything. I'm arguing that everybody should be able to do whatever they want. The problem is I don’t feel like I’m allowed this freedom, at least not in a socially acceptable way.


Sean Illing


I take it that’s why you wrote this book, because you felt like you had to conceal this part of your life?


Carrie Jenkins


Actually, the book has a fairly late-stage openness. We were already fairly open before the book, but we felt the need to talk about this, partly because we felt like we would be judged if we were seen with another partner that wasn’t our wife or husband. We thought people might assume we're cheating, and we also thought that even if people knew we weren't cheating, they might have a lot of stereotypes in their mind about what it means to be in an open relationship, and so we wanted to address some of the objections we've heard.


We also wanted to model something different, something that looked less like some of the stereotypes, and something that, as far as we could tell, was a healthy alternative.


[Author’s note: Jenkins and her husband published an open letter in the journal Off Topic responding to the most common objections to polyamory.]





Sean Illing


A common assumption about romantic love that it can only exist between two partners at one time. What is flawed about that assumption?


Carrie Jenkins


I am really interested and philosophically invested in that claim for obvious reasons. I have a theory about what romantic love is: It's part biological, so the brain chemistry and everything that's evolved in us as a species, and part socially constructed. Romantic love as a social construct, in this time and place, still includes a strong monogamy component. So if you're thinking about the social side of romantic love, what it is right now, then there is a sense in which what I do, for example, is just a bad fit for that social construct. The people who say I'm not really in love because I have that relationship with two people are halfway right, in the sense that they are accurately saying the social construct excludes me.


Biologically speaking, whatever is going on in my brain is the thing that romantic love is supposed to look like, or what it looks in other people who are in monogamous love. The fact that the social construct excludes me is not a reason — and this has been my most hard-won piece of wisdom — to feel like I'm doing something wrong. It's a reason to challenge the social construct.


Sean Illing


So you’re looking to preserve this dichotomy of love as both a social construct and a biological impulse?


Carrie Jenkins


Romantic love has its biological side, and it has its socially constructed side. What I'm really interested in is how can we improve it and include both halves in the picture. But for the socially constructed side, we have a lot of control over that, not any one individual but collectively. Because a social construct means we collectively are constructing and maintaining [it], and it does change over time. You can see this, for example, in the move toward greater inclusion of same-sex love in my lifetime. And in the generation before that, a similar move toward the inclusion of interracial love.


So this social construct that used to exclude certain kinds of relationships has come to include them, so it's possible for us to change what is or isn't included under that heading. Knowing that we have a socially constructed phenomenon on our hands is what empowers us to challenge and change it.


Sean Illing


If we’re talking about a social construct, it makes no sense to talk about what’s “natural,” but there’s certainly a school of thought that says monogamy is psychologically unhealthy because it forces us to repress biological drives.


Carrie Jenkins


It’s unhealthy to force people into a choice that might not fit them. You can think of the model of compulsory heterosexuality, in which the only kind of sex that's permissible or the only sex one can contemplate is straight sex. What's unhealthy there is some people are going to be forced toward something that doesn't suit them, doesn't fit them, and forced away from what would actually be the natural, healthy life for them. It's not that straight sex isn't healthy. It's that forcing everyone into one box is unhealthy.


I think the same about monogamy.


Sean Illing


What’s your response to people who say polyamory is really about sex, not love?


Carrie Jenkins


I can only describe my experience and the experiences of other people I know. I am in long-term, loving relationships with two people, and there's so much to these relationships that I can hardly begin to describe the kinds of value they bring to my life.


Sean Illing


Can you give me an example of what you mean here?


Carrie Jenkins


Sure. When I was writing my book in its early sort of manuscript stages, I was hesitant to show it to anyone I didn’t have really deep trust with. I showed my husband, who's also a philosopher, and I said, hey, am I making any bad philosophical errors? Help me out here, check it all through for me. Because we have the kind of relationship we do, I didn't feel uncomfortable sharing with him at all.


My boyfriend is a writer and poet, and he's taught creative writing for many years. I was able to share the manuscript with him and say, hey, is my writing really bad, can you help me with the writing? In the same way, it didn't feel bad to share with him, because even though I knew it was full of mistakes and probably full of bad writing, I love him and trust him. I could share with him.


So I have that kind of relationship with both of these people, and it plays such a huge role in my life that to say that is just about sex would be to miss the point entirely.




Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa
Author Carrie Jenkins.


Sean Illing


Why do you think people are desperate to reduce polyamory — or really any form of love — to sex?


Carrie Jenkins


I have thought about why people do that. If you can reduce poly relationships — or same-sex relationships, for that matter — to sex, it becomes easier to dismiss them and not have to feel like there's anything respectable there. That, ultimately, is what it’s about.


Sean Illing


Can we disentangle love from sex? Should we?


Carrie Jenkins


Yes and yes. For a lot of people, love and sex go along together and that works well, just as monogamy works well for a lot of people. Other people are asexual and still fall in romantic love, so that's one kind of reason to disentangle them.


In the other direction, you can be having sex with someone you're not in love with, just a hookup or friends with benefits. Sex and love come apart in both directions. You can have one without the other. It's just conceptually confused if you pretend they're the same. But for a lot of people they overlap, and that's great too. It doesn't mean they do for everyone.


Sean Illing


What does a properly expansive concept of love look like?


Carrie Jenkins


That's really the question, isn’t it? I’ve talked about two possibilities, and these are about romantic love. I'm not talking about love that people feel for their friends or family or their kids or whatever. I'm talking about what is the ideal version of romantic love.


One possibility that I've talked about is that we eliminate it. That we say romanticism is not a useful way to distinguish a certain kind of love. And there have been some philosophers that have argued for that, because they say romantic love is just bound up with heteronormativity. It's bound up with bad gender stereotypes. It's bound up with all kinds of historical associations with women being property and given away by their fathers to their husbands. All these stories we think of as romantic are full of problematic baggage.


Now, I think romantic love is salvageable. But that requires being aware of the nature of love as it is now, which is part of the reason I'm writing this book. There is still a lot of gender stereotyping associated with romantic love. There are still normative assumptions that you're going to get married, have babies, be monogamous, and be a permanent, lifelong couple, a nuclear family. And that's a fine model, but it doesn't work for everyone.


So I think we need to step away from the ways that we use romantic love to box people in. Romantic love is not one thing, and we need a model that captures this.


Sean Illing


You mentioned gender stereotypes just now, and I wonder if you see the institution of monogamy as especially oppressive for women?


Carrie Jenkins


Certainly the historical associations have been especially oppressive to women. So if you think about the origins of monogamous marriage, in the giving away of women from one man to another, that is certainly oppressive. The fact that there are still echoes of this today is certainly a problem. There are still a lot of gender stereotypes that are alive and active in contemporary monogamous, hetero relationships.


For example, it's still very statistically unusual for the wife in a hetero couple to earn more. There's also some psychological evidence about women who have romantic fantasies of being swept up by a Prince Charming figure. That fantasy, if they're not aware of it, is correlated with having lower ambition for themselves personally and professionally.


So there is definitely a bundle of cultural associations with monogamy that are the sorts of things I am resistant to as a feminist and am trying to press back on. That's not necessarily bound up with monogamy per se. It's just the way it's been practiced.


But there's also a problem with patriarchal monogamy, which is the practice of assuming that women are to be thought of as basically a kind of property of their husbands or in some ways a secondary partner in the partnership. That is also a problem, and I'm not advocating for that either.


The problem with patriarchal polygamy and monogamy is the same. It's not the monogamy or polygamy — it's the patriarchy.


Sean Illing


You’re an academic philosopher who has decided to write a controversial book about a charged topic for a very public audience. Why do that?


Carrie Jenkins


I want to start a conversation. I don't care whether everyone agrees with what I say. I just want people to be talking about this. I think that's the way progress gets done. You can't make progress by deciding what's right or wrong and then telling everybody else. But I think we can make progress if we get more people thinking about monogamy, about romantic love, and why it looks the way it does and how much control we have over that.


I keep coming back to this idea that we have so much control over what love is, what love looks like, what stories we tell, what is depicted in romantic comedies, what stories are told in romance novels. All of these ways we determine what love is are a social construct. We have so much control over that. That means we are responsible for getting it right. If we don't, we're excluding people from the social construct of romantic love without justification, and that makes it difficult for them to live the way they want to or the way they need to.