Can Polyamory Help Destroy Rape Culture? ~ Tikva Wolf

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Many romances begin with wordless flirtation, stolen kisses and vague communication.

In a culture where disinterest is often interpreted as shyness or “playing hard to get,” men are encouraged to think women need to be skillfully interpreted and convinced, instead of taken at their word. Even the clearest “no” is still up for debate.

I’ve had men tell me I was “asking for it” by making eye contact with them on the street instead of averting my gaze. And when they discovered that my polite smile was not a request for sex, they reacted in outrage as if I was purposefully leading them on.

A stranger misinterpreting our smile as an open invitation to our body sounds ludicrous, but watching any romantic comedy will show us how our culture views consent.

How many times does the woman turn the main character down before he grabs and kisses her—and doesn’t she secretly want it all along, perhaps without even knowing it herself, until he figures out how to prove that they are meant to be?

It may be entertaining to watch awkward fumbling and forceful passion on the screen, but this kind of indirect communication seeps out into our actual romantic encounters far too often and can be very dangerous.

When men identify with that main character who wins the girl in the end, they feel cheated when their own efforts aren’t achieving the same results. They can sometimes decide to take it forcefully if the woman isn’t catching on quick enough, because “no” just means she hasn’t been convinced yet that this is what she really wants.

Most women have encountered men who feel entitled to have access to their bodies. Just look at the recent gruesome events involving Elliot Rodger and the resulting stories on Twitter with the hashtag “#YesAllWomen.”

Clearly there are a lot of men out there who think they deserve the girl, regardless of what she has to say about it.

In polyamorous relationships, unclear communication will have us drowning in a sea of interpersonal drama much more quickly than it would in a conventional, monogamous relationship.

One reason for this is that monogamy is the expected norm, so if we’re monogamous, it’s pretty easy to coast through the beginning of our relationship without putting any effort into communicating our intentions or expectations.

If we say nothing at all about what we want, it is assumed that our eventual goal is a monogamous until-death-do-us-part with someone. Polyamorous relationships are more complex and less understood, so therefore require explanation right from the beginning and skillful communication throughout.

Poly folks will often discuss their specific intentions with people they are attracted to and even sit down with everyone’s other partners and discuss it with them as well, way before the first date is even considered. It is very likely that a first kiss won’t come with a silent assumption of consent, but after it has been discussed with everyone involved instead.

Clear communication is a must for long-term poly relationships, so this is a skill that gets exercised often.

But what does this have to do with rape culture? Rape culture is fed on silence and assumptions. By insisting on communicating clearly every step of the way about any intention of sex or romance, we kill those old ideas of romance being about silent flirtation and stolen kisses.

We make consent sexy.

We might think that clear communication is overkill, boring and that it will stifle the romance—but the opposite is true. When people are open and vulnerable in relationship to each other, expressing the full extent of their desires and (most importantly) wanting to hear and understand the desires of their partners, there is absolutely nothing sexier than that.

I used to think that stolen kisses were sexy, but now I see them as a sign of emotional immaturity and dissociation. I would much rather my partners be obviously interested in what I want than trying to see what they can get out of me.

I would much rather be telling them what I want than waiting for them to guess.

Margaret Atwood’s quote, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” illustrates why it is more important that men take on the task of communicating clearly and receiving consent, but it is incredibly empowering to take on the task as a woman as well.

We don’t need to be in a polyamorous relationship to get our clear communication groove on, obviously. But if we’re in a polyamorous relationship we need to communicate impeccably, just to keep up with what’s going on.

Making clear communication and consent sexy is a huge part of what’s needed to feed the revolution of consent culture. So whether we are monogamous, polyamorous, monogam-ish, or poly-curious, we need to push ourselves to communicate more openly with everyone and see how it affects our romantic life.

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Photo: Derek Ooi, Pixoto

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anonymous Jul 2, 2014 10:49am

I really enjoyed this article and I definitely agree with the point that polyamory involves open communication to really work. One thing I wanted to add is that as a polyamorous wife, I actually feel safer knowing that my partners will protect me. Prior to my husband and I finding our partner, he would always be on the alert when I would go out on dates. Kind of like a bulldog keeping an eye on me and ready to protect if needed. Most rapes happen from someone the victim knows- boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, stepdad, step-sibling, best friend, etc. Having multiple partners actually makes me feel more protected if jealousy arises that could alert to danger. I have multiple friends that have been abused by their monogamous partners. That's NOT to say that all monogamous males are rapists! I just feel more comfortable knowing that if someone new enters my life, my multiple partners are their to protect me.

anonymous Jun 9, 2014 7:15pm

Yes there is room for abuse in all forms of relationships, but the point I see about this article is Poly relationships by their very nature encourage all of us to comunicate , ……then comunicate some more. Yes we as individuals probably get little chance to show a rapist a successful poly or successful monogamy relationship because we simply don't usualy know who is a rapist. As a man it's hard for me to know who is and who is not a rapist? I have often wondered: do I know a rapist? Even in boy -man culture, such as job sites etc they don't come right out and say they are a rapist or they would support that sort of thing. They are more disgustingly subtle. These rare ocasions when someone says that rape culture slang, it is important to listen and confront in that moment, and not to let it slip under ther rug. I have had more respect as a man in my 50's than when I was in my late teens or early 20's. when I have confronted these men from rape culture (AND BELEVE ME THERE IS A RAPE CULTURE) No longer do they ridicule me by calling me feminist in a nasty tone. Actualy I am a feminist man and happy to be one.
But these opportunities come along very rarely. Influencing social norms is easily done by example. Pollyamory is the best example I have been Involved in– I have been involved in poly and monogamas relationships for 35 years. Polly makes me question what I really want. It forces me to communicate. And real communication is true love,
This article is showing us a way to have better communication; that way is Pollyamory. It teaches us by doing that comunication work. Probably a rapist will never see it. But if we effect our society in these positive ways, we can in the long run effect the ugly rape culture and pull the foundations from under it. Whether or not those foundations are part of some of the major instutions of our society.
Thanks to Tikva for a part of the change.

anonymous Jun 2, 2014 8:13pm

I agree with Elena, and I think there might be a chicken-and-egg thing going on here. People in successful poly relationships *are* a good example of sexy consent and how not to rape people, but not every poly relationship is a good one; and for a person who is maybe considering whether to rape someone, showing them a successful poly relationship is going to be like speaking another language. I am skeptical that causality could really work in the direction of "polyamory can help destroy rape culture." I believe it's already been shown that telling people "Don't rape, it's wrong" is ineffective, but "Don't rape, you'll go to jail" is what really gets people to listen. If that's the level that the general population is at, I am pessimistic that telling them about polyamory is going to make much of a difference. However, I do think that spreading the word about the importance of consent could be helpful, and that's something that applies in polyamory and monogamy both.

anonymous Jun 2, 2014 12:41am

It's not like there's no room for abuse in a "poly" relationship. Exactly because it is a lesser-know relationship setup, abusers have it (still) easy in making up the craziest bullshit of "things that are supposed to happen in a poly relationship" (such as the monstrous "one cock policy", too many times imposed on one partner instead of agreed upon) and pressuring their partners into swallowing it.

Yes, the theory of polyamory is all good. In practice, it's not a guarantee of excellent communication or anything else. Let's not develop the dangerous bias that poliamorists are inherently trustworthy, because they are not.

It's not having or wanting poly relationships that helps preventing rape or destroying rape culture. Deentpolyamory can at best result from a larger educational effort in fighting sexism and gender stereotypes. I don't see polyamory as tool per se, but more as a possible outcome.

anonymous Jun 1, 2014 11:41pm

Awesome article , bring on a culture of "Yes means yes".

Not sure why people think Eliott Rodger "proves" things, or proves things about men or men's values by and large though. As though Eliot Rodger represents a meaningful sample of "men" any more than Joanna Dennehy or Karla Homolka represent the values and behaviour of women.

anonymous Jun 1, 2014 6:09pm

The closest thing to a universal definition of polyamory I know is "multiple relationships with the full knowledge and consent of all participants." Thus, I'd argue that the notion of enthusiastic consent is implicit in the very definition of polyamory. In other words, I think you're exactly right here, Tikva.

What I'd add to the discussion is that the entitlement that undergirds rape culture–which forms the foundation of the socially-normative monogamous dating world–comes from the commodification of women and of relationships. If we assume that we're searching for one, and only one, lifetime partner, we can't help but see dating as a zero sum game and love as a scarce resource.

Another reason polyamory is an antidote to rape culture is that polyamory is based on a model of abundance, of love as a renewable resource (to torture the metaphor). If I engage in multiple loving relationships, I am much less likely to feel possessive of any one of my partners. After all, love is abundant, and if one of my partners should happen to want to change, or end, our relationship, I will still have plenty of love in my life. And I needn't pressure anyone to be with me since I don't see a potential partner as the *only* potential partner for me (i.e. if I don't "have" them, someone else will–zero sum games are not very civilized).

I agree that rape culture is mostly about consent, but I think we need to look at the way that treating people as objects or resources contributes to the sense that we needn't consider their consent (after all, objects are there to be taken or bought, or at best, won by our worthy deeds). By its very nature, monogamy turns people and relationships into resources. Polyamory provides a way out of this trap.

    anonymous Jun 2, 2014 12:04am

    By its very nature, monogamy turns people and relationships into resources

    As a tempermentally monogamous person, I take some issue with this statement. A framework that assumes "monogamy as default" may have this effect, but monogamy can be freely chosen and consentual. My partner is not transformed into an object simply because having partnered with them I find myself no longer desiring other partners.

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Tikva Wolf

Tikva Wolf is the artist behind Kimchi Cuddles, a webcomic spreading awareness about polyamory and relationship advice in the most hilarious way possible. Her comic delves deep into relationship issues mostly surrounding polyamorous, queer, and genderqueer folks. She is currently working on a book and beginning to give talks. Her comic can be found at her website, Kimchi Cuddles, and the Kimchi Cuddles Facebook page. If you are interested in her visiting your campus or community for giving a talk on polyamory, consent, or gender, she can be reached via email.