Desire beyond - A review of Breaking the barriers to desire: Polyamory, polyfidelity and non-monogamy -- New approaches to multiple relationships

Breaking the barriers to desire: Polyamory, polyfidelity and non-monogamy - new approaches to multiple relationships

Edited by Kevin Lano and Claire Parry

Five Leaves Publications, 1995.

"Polyamory and non-monogamy, whilst increasingly acknowledged aspects of relationships, have not yet been accepted as valid alternative ways of living. This book will aim to show that 'responsible non-monogamy' can be both a positive choice at a personal level and a radicalising current in society, providing a true alternative to the dependence and exclusion of traditional monogamy, and the lack of responsibility and honesty in covert non-monogamy."

So begins Breaking the barriers to desire. When I read this, I thought "at last!". I devoured the book quickly, and after much laughter, some crying and lots of "yes"es (often shouted out in public places), finished one of the most exciting books I've read in a long time.

Breaking the barriers to desire is broken into two sections: "Polyamory in practice" and "Theory and politics". The scope and mix of the articles was the first thing that grabbed me. There are personal stories, some chunky theoretical pieces, a history of non-monogamy, an article about the life of a non-monogamous woman in the early 1800s, and an exploration of Christian theological justifications for monogamy and polygyny. The articles are supplemented with an extensive bibliography, bio notes on contributors (I always like to know a bit about the writers), glossary, and a "Resources and groups" list which contains internet addresses and brief movie reviews! And all this in 137 pages.

One of the things I liked the most about the book was the linking of the personal and theoretical. I thought the couple of pieces that are 'purely personal' (without much context or reflection), or mainly academic, were the least interesting. But I found most of the pieces, which explore the relationship of practice to theory, to be exciting, honest and powerful.

The articles in Breaking the barriers to desire clarify many important points, some of which I'll list briefly here. The book makes the critical distinction between ethical non-monogamy and promiscuity. It is honest about the difficulties of living outside the couple-box, but it is also celebratory about when these relationships work, and the transformative potential in people's connections, and society as a whole. Many of the pieces acknowledge the work that bisexual people have done, both in their personal lives and publicly, to make non-monogamy possible for themselves and others. And I loved the discussion of terminology in some pieces and the glossary - without a comprehensive language about us, we're invisible.

Like any good book on a deeply misunderstood and maligned part of people's lives, this one debunks a lot of myths and shows the frustration and pain they can cause. Alison Rowan's piece, "How to be not monogamous" includes a passage that will be all-too familiar to many 'non-monoggies', and should be something for others to listenup! to:

"[W]hat really gets to me is the endless succession of questions that inevitably seem to follow, and which show exactly how hard it's going to be to explain [why she's not monogamous] - the ones about don't I think that I might want to commit myself to somebody some day (yes, thank you, I already have) about isn't sex without affection a bit depressing? (yes, I had some of that a long time ago when I was trying to be monogamous for a while, and yes, it was horrible). Don't you get jealous? (yes, sometimes, but I also get jealous of my partner's job, and I don't require that they give that up); the question about …well it all sounds quite "fun" (and what a lot of disapproval they can pack into a word like fun), but can you give me any examples of non-monogamous relationships that actually work?"

The book also makes the point that non-monogamy is a political issue. Those of us who 'don't fit' not only have to face the confusion (and sometimes hostility) of others, but also have the important connections in our lives ignored by institutions such as marriage, sick leave provisions at work, birth certificates (that only allow two parents), and legal forms allowing for only one next-of-kin. While the articles don't go into much detail about where to take this politically (what should/ can non-monogamous activists be doing?), articulating the political aspects of our lives can lead to politicised identities, which is an important start.

Many of the articles struck chords with me, and many helped me to expand my thinking about these issues, and improve how I go about them in my everyday life. Bernadette Lynn Bosky's personal essay about her 'couple-three' points out that many discussions of non-monogamous relationships overemphasise sex, and that there are many other reasons for being close to a number of people. Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli's "Choosing not to choose: Beyond monogamy, beyond duality" gave me an invaluable framework and set of tools with which to think about all of these issues (and then to move further - see below). Kevin Lano's "Friends can't be lovers: The paradox of monogamy" dealt with what has been a sometimes confusing and painful issue in my life, and drew out some of the main issues in the 'friend /relationship' split. I wish this piece was longer and perhaps not so simplistic, but I'm sure the issues he introduces could fill a whole book!

Another piece by Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli, "Mardi Gras", made me cry - both the first time I read it, and again months later. I had known that this would be an important book, and my heart quickened every time I picked it up. But it was this piece - and its parallels with my own life - that powerfully brought home to me how much this book is about people's lives, and just how much these issues can impact on us.

I have just two main content quibbles with the book. Before I talk about them briefly, I'd like to preface them. Many times when reading this book, I was reminded of the first books that came out on bisexuality - I found myself simultaneously weeping for joy that these books finally existed, but also a bit embarrassed about the bits they left out. I was more appreciative when I realised that without these books, I probably wouldn't have the very framework I used when I pointed out the things I wished they'd done better. With a book on an issue that's so new, I think this will often happen, so I don't want to make it seem like this book is grossly deficient - this book is great, and these issues will be worked out the more that these issues are written about.

The first thing I wish the book did differently was pay more attention to feminist critiques of non-monogamy. As far as I remember, only one author (Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli) talks about these issues in any depth, and even then I found myself wanting to read more. None of the male authors acknowledged that it means something different for a man to argue for non-monogamy than a woman. I think men need to be aware of this when writing about these issues, but also in their day to day practice of relating to others, especially if those others are women.

The second thing I wanted to read more about was how people actually go beyond the monogamy/ non-monogamy dichotomy - both in theoretical frameworks, and in their relationships with others. While some of the articles show the negative effects of this dichotomy, none really step outside it, as far as I can tell. "Choosing not to choose", I think, comes closest to this, and was inspirational in helping me and Ron Frey solidify our thinking. (See "When the one and only, isn't", XY, Summer 1996.)

My concern is that, in some people's connections at least, working from a 'non-monogamy' framework can actually be quite limiting. In my life for example, I want to honor all the special connections I have with people - I can have intense connections with people intellectually, emotionally, physically, in shared fun and hilarity, and spiritually. Which of these should be the all-important factor in labelling my connections with people, and therefore used as a definer of my 'non-monogamy'?

I also think that using a dichotomy (or even a continuum, which is really just a 'join-the-dots' dichotomy) can give fewer points of entry for people in the dominant or traditional category to find the contradictions, and therefore the toeholds for self-deconstruction, and possible points of connection with 'others'. This is like the effect that gay and lesbian identity politics has had on 'straight' people ('well, if I'm not gay, then I must be straight'), and even 'bisexual' people ('if I'm not gay or straight, then I must be bi'), as opposed to queer, queer-straight, not very sexual (it didn't cross my mind today), fluid, pansexual, pansensual, or downright sexual.

I also found a few editing glitches distracting. I thought the editing could have been a bit more thorough - some of the pieces have some gaps in consistency and logic, which make them a bit hard to follow. Some pieces use the germanic pseudo-scientific numbering system (8, 8.1, etc) which is not only ugly, but superfluous. Some of the bibliography items were missing or out of order. And not having an index makes it hard to find key ideas. Still, these are not reasons to pass the book by - they're simply things that would have made a great book fantastic.

Which leads me to that grandiose concluding paragraph that seems to be essential to book reviews, and yes, I'm gonna tell you to read this book. It may be hard to find this book in bookstores. If you can't, just order it from your local bookstore - most are happy to order books in. (Or you could write direct to the publisher: Five Leaves Publications, PO Box 81, Nottingham, UK, NG5 4ER.)

I think this book will be seen as a goddess-send by people for whom monogamy doesn't fit. But I also think it is important reading for all you folk who are monogamous. I won't go so far as to suggest that you will become non-monogamous after reading this book, but others who aren't monogamous will certainly benefit from your enlightenment. It's like how I also expect straights - and gays - to read Bi any other name, about bisexuality. This is about our lives, and it's quite possible your assumptions are wrong. This makes sense in a culture that's hostile to non-monogamy (and bisexuality), but it's still up to you to unlearn this stuff. Like Alison Rowan's quote above shows, we get a bit tired having to explain (and justify) our lives to others all the time. Rather than putting someone through a question-and-answer-marathon, read Breaking the barriers to desire. Then we can have a conversation that builds understanding and real respect.


First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 6(2), Winter 1996. XY, PO Box 4026, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. ©Reprinted with permission.