Saturday, December 08, 2012

Monogamy as sexual orientation

I was rather surprised and disconcerted to see Dan Savage, in both last week's column and the week before's (last letter both times), insist that polygamous and monogamous aren't sexual orientations.  This was bizarre to me, because I've been coming to realize over the course of my life that my sexual orientation is most accurately described as "monogamous".

In this week's column, he has some testimonials from people who identify as orientationally poly, but there's nothing firsthand from people who identify as orientationally monogamous.  So I thought I'd share what I can currently articulate about how it works for me.

- "Why do you describe it as an orientation rather than a practice?" Sexual orientation is the primary factor in defining who you are capable of being sexually attracted to.  If you're heterosexual, for example, the fact that someone is of the opposite sex is the primary factor in determining whether you can be sexually attracted to them.  People talk about "meeting men" or "meeting women" - the gender is so intrinsic to defining who we're capable of being attracted to that people use it as a shorthand for "people I am capable of being attracted to."  For me, the primary factor is whether I love them.  That's the one factor that absolutely must be present to switch on sexual attraction.  Yes, this means that I'm not sexually attracted to people before I love them.  I've never once in my life looked at a random passer-by and thought "I'd hit that!"  I have to have a reason to fall in love with them first.  I can be sexually attracted to someone for whom I have unrequited love as long as there's no requited love going on in my life, but it can only be that one person.

- "But can't you be in love with more than one person?"  No.  I don't have room.  Analogy: I have two breasts, each of which has one nipple.  Therefore, I could nurse a maximum of two babies simultaneously.  There is no possible way to do more, because there simply aren't more nipples.  There's no expansion pack, there's no extension cord, it's a hard and fast limit.  Similarly, I only have one slot in my brain for being in love with a person.  There simply isn't any more room and no way to expand it. Yes, I've heard that some people can, and I'm not going to be so presumptuous as to question their self-knowledge.  But the fact remains that I can't.

- "It's illogical."  I totally agree.  I always assumed that a monogamous relationship was just for fairy tales and old-fashioned people to whom it didn't occur to do otherwise.  How presumptuous would it be for me to think anyone could possibly find me sufficient!  But then, one day, my boyfriend raised the idea that we could be monogamous.  I was shocked that such a thing would be suggested in real life, but I noticed that since we'd gotten together I hadn't had even the slightest glimmer of interest in anyone else, so I agreed.  And HOLY SHIT WAS IT SEXY!!!  It was so sexy that everything I'd previously thought was sexy was relegated to "unremarkable".  It was the emotional equivalent of discovering the clitoris. It' s so sexy that the (physical or psychological) involvement of someone with whom I'm not in a monogamous committed relationship in any sort of sexual experience cannot possibly contribute to the sexiness of the situation - even if the situation is one where I would otherwise be alone.  The best possible outcome is neutral; the worst, and most likely, outcome is total turn-off.  Much like, I'd imagine, Dan Savage would feel if I turned up in his bed.  Analogy: the clitoris is illogical.  It would be far more logical if everyone's primary source of orgasms were vaginal stimulation, because that would facilitate procreation and provide primary stimulation to both partners in an opposite-sex coupling simultaneously.  However, this does not negate the fact that the clitoris exists and is the primary source of orgasms for many people.

- "So how do you transition from one relationship to another?"  As I've mentioned in other blog posts, my feelings - all feelings, not just romantic - don't go away.  They pile up like the stuff in the "miscellaneous" pile on your desk - the ones at the bottom might be hidden from view by the ones added more recently, but they still exist, perfectly whole and in their original state.  What this means for romantic feelings is that new feelings must be so strong that they completely envelop and overwhelm the old feelings.  The old feelings don't go away, they just become insignificant in the face of the exponential superiority of the new feelings. I can't go from one relationship to another equal relationship; I can only transition to a significantly better relationship.  (This also applies for platonic relationships, BTW.  I've blogged before about how my Grade 8 friends abandoned me before high school started.  My feelings for those people are still exactly the same as they were when they were still being friends with me, it's just the friends I've made since are so much more awesome that the feeling I was defining as "friendship" in Grade 8 no longer counts as such.  My current close friends found me when we were in our mid/late teens, and I haven't felt the need to seek out new friends since.)

- "What about fantasy?" When my love is requited, I don't fantasize about anyone else.  I can't explain why, it just doesn't happen.  When my love is not requited, I'm like Marshall in How I Met Your Mother.  Marshall, as you may recall, can only fantasize about someone other than his wife Lily if he constructs a scenario where Lily has died but, on her deathbed, gave him her blessing to be with whomever is the subject of the fantasy.  Similarly, the premise of my fantasy has to be that my previous love thinks it's for the best that I'm with the subject of the fantasy. When my 13-year-old self transitioned from crushing on Wil Wheaton as Wesley Crusher to crushing on Dean Cain as Clark Kent, she constructed a scenario where Wesley had to go off and join the Traveller, and therefore introduced her to the most powerful man on earth to ensure she'd have a worthy partner.  (Did I mention this was fantasy?)  It sounds complex when I write it up like this, but all fantasy actually involves a lot of premise.  You're constructing a scenario where the subject of your fantasy likes you and enjoys spending time with you and doesn't smell and is into all the same sex acts as you and can do that thing with their tongue and isn't creeped out by the fact that you have a poster of them over your bed, all on top of the fact that the two of you were in the same place at the same time and managed to talk and they found you interesting enough that they didn't just pass you over for the next fangirl.

- "But is poly something anyone can do or something some people are? I come down on the "do" side" - Dan Savage, Nov. 28. You could do it without being it, and you could (with much more incentive and self-discipline) be it without doing it.  I could, I suppose, have more than one lover, as in I could physically carry out the motions.  But I don't want to, and am in fact repulsed by the idea.  Just like I'm sure Dan Savage could engage in a rousing session of cunnilingus (and, being a sex advice columnist, would probably even know a trick or two), but I suspect he'd rather be in bed alone with a book.  Polyamory is something anyone can do just like having sex with a woman is something anyone can do.  That doesn't mean it isn't an orientation factor.

- "But I'm monogamous as a result of a deliberate choice to be so - it has nothing to do with my sexual orientation!"  I have no doubt that's true.  Many people make a conscious decision to be monogamous.  However, it is still my orientation.  Analogy: It is perfectly possible for someone who is bisexual to make a conscious decision to only have relationships with members of the opposite sex, perhaps for procreation, religious, or convenience purposes.  However, this does not negate the fact that many people are heterosexual by orientation and are actually turned off by the idea of sex with a member of the same sex.


laura k said...

Very interesting post. Is it possible monogamy and polyamory are orientation for some people and choice/what you do for others?

I know many people who feel they are poly as an orientation. I am poly, but don't feel it's an orientation, I feel it's a choice (what I do as opposed to what I am). I can accept that it's not one or the other.

Does that work for you?

Maybe your post answers my question and I didn't see it. I will re-read.

laura k said...

Yes, you kind of answered it. I'm surprised Dan Savage can't get to this, too.

He does have certain blind spots. I can think of a few others.

impudent strumpet said...

I think "by choice" is a better phrasing than the "what you do" phrasing that I got from Savage Love. Because it's conceivable that a person could be poly by choice but not in practice, i.e. they want to and intend to be poly, but circumstances haven't yet aligned to give them more than one partner at the same time.

laura k said...

Yes, very much so! Many couples say they are "poly in theory". In practice they're monogamous because neither person is bothering, or hasn't found anyone, or too busy, etc. But the monogamy is not required or especially desired.