For a long time, I had zero personal interest in marriage. I discouraged partners from mentioning it. I sarcastically belittled it when it came up. The only weddings I would attend were adorably weird and semi-subversive. (Picture a wedding between a progressive Presbyterian pastor and a Unitarian astrophysicist, where the cake was shaped like a stack of books containing four titles: I, Robot; The Color Purple; Traveling Mercies; and The Princess Bride.)
So it was a bit of a shock to realize I’d begun truly wanting to get married. Somewhere in my mid-to-late twenties, as I began to consciously imagine having kids and picturing a more settled life, I found myself longing for a husband.
When my first book was translated into German, a review in Spiegel started like this:
The American author Clarisse Thorn cultivates her contradictions. She describes herself as a “fanatical feminist” fighting against sexism. She inclines towards complicated lovers and generally has more than one of them. And she is a sadomasochist who takes her perversion seriously.
Although it is entertaining to imagine what the reviewer would make of my newfound desire for marriage and kids, I tend to think that the “contradictions” between feminism, alternative sexuality and marriage have always been overblown. In any group of people, some will take on more traditional values and some won’t. Just as in any group of married people there will inevitably be perverts, many groups practicing alternative sex will include members that want to get married. Yet the argument is often made that marriage is inherently conservative, and that an alt-sexual commitment to openness and creativity in personal relationships conflicts with it. Indeed, alternative sexuality in itself is often cited by conservatives as destructive to the institution of marriage.
Shortly after Massachusetts legalized gay marriage in 2003, an article appeared on the conservative website WorldNetWeekly. The author proposed that gay marriage would inevitably pave the way for … drumroll … S&M marriage!
This ruling, forbidding any “second-class citizens” will surely allow sadomasochist marriages as well as sodomist ones. Let us predict that the Very Rev. I.M. DeSade, a sadist, wishes to marry his masochist lover, Paynes Pleasure. The ceremony is conducted by another S&M clergyman. He wears a cassock, surplice—and, in place of stole or tippet, he has a large chain around his neck. He carries a whip. This first sadomasochist wedding includes the sadist groom using that whip to give the masochist bride two dozen lashes well laid on—as the male bride exudes cries of delight and the congregation cheers …. Welcome to New Morality in Massachusetts.
I particularly love the assumption that S&Mers aren’t already getting married. News flash: heterosexual S&Mers are getting married left and right—right under everyone else’s noses! (Usually, however, there are no floggings at the wedding.) A lot of us have kids—and always have.
Polyamory, too—the practice of having multiple lovers who know about each other—is seen as incompatible with marriage. Google “polyamorous marriage” and you find poly people advocating for legal marriage rights, poly people claiming that it will never happen, and conservatives bemoaning the downfall of our once-great nation. A 2013 Washington Post article describes poly-activism within the Unitarian church, and notes that many Unitarians resent poly activists: the activists are criticized for appearing too extreme, for demanding too much too soon, and for risking “tamer” political advances like gay marriage in their quest for visibility.
But polyamory, done right, has much to teach marriage. A lot of polyamorous conversations cover ground like: How can we talk about our other relationships? If there is a “primary” couple involved, then what limitations do they place on “secondary” relationships? Some poly couples even use careful written contracts to document their relationship agreements, such as the circumstances in which a primary partner gets to “veto” or cut off a secondary relationship.
I know many monogamous people who take cues from poly conversations on topics like defining a relationship, dealing with jealousy and so on. Too many monogamous marriages have suffered from a lack of vocabulary and structure for engaging forceful emotions like jealousy. Personally, even when I have monogamous relationships, I value my poly experience because it helps me to examine my assumptions and clearly lay out my preferences.
There are tons of different poly relationship setups—each with their own jargon— and each an invitation to think about making intimacy more intentional. For example, a “vee” is a three-person relationship shaped like a “V,” where the person at the apex has relationships with two other people, but the two of them have little or no relationship to each other. “Polyfidelity” is a multi-person relationship wherein the participants do not have relationships with outsiders (like monogamy, but with multiple people). And I’ve mentioned “primary” and “secondary” relationships, which are exactly what they sound like: a primary relationship is considered to be more important or central, with more responsibilities, than a secondary relationship.
For some polyamorous groups, all parties in the relationship are equal. Their members may outright reject legal marriage for that reason. A few form co-housing families (like co-ops), sometimes with children being brought up in the group. Plenty of poly people are already legally married to one partner—whether that partner is a “primary” partner or not—and they may even live with other partners. One of my friends in the Bay Area co-signed a mortgage with his partner’s other lover. Actually, based on my circulations among the poly subculture, I would conjecture that the majority of poly people live in pairs—and for some, it’s only partly because they want to pass for “normal.”
Like gay marriage, the concept of polyamorous marriage invites participants to ask: What is the point of marriage, anyway? What will be the point of our marriage? How do we expect it to ensure fidelity? How are we acting as life partners to one another, and how is this different from our other relationships? If we want to have kids, how should this marriage allow us to provide them with love and care?
But there’s another sex-related community with a revealing perspective on marriage: the asexual (or “ace”) community—people who identify as feeling no sexual and/or romantic desire. Some aces feel little to no sexual desire; others feel little to no romantic desire; others feel little to none of both.
As a movement, asexuality has been around for more than a decade. Ace sensibilities are globally rare, so the community’s organization is greatly enhanced by social media. The most visible ace group is called the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, and it’s headed by my friend David Jay. When I started writing this article, I asked David to have lunch with me and talk about marriage. Some asexuals do get married, and I wanted to know more about why and how.
“A lot of close ace relationships mimic sexual relationships,” David said. “But we’re doing this thing that’s not really built for us, so we have to find our own path. A lot of aces don’t see how to fit themselves into our cultural image of long-term commitment. Sometimes, people with a strong non-romantic connection end up getting married—I have ace friends who say, “We’re not a couple, we’re a set.” They figure that they want to live together, spend a bunch of time in this relationship, and have a party about it, and marriage is one way to do that. The relevant question is: Do you have intimacy in your life? And how are you building that? What do you want intimacy to look like in the long term?”
On a napkin, David diagrammed the “asexual relationship triangle,” with the initials S, C and P at the angles. He explained that the community sometimes talks about intimacy with partners (romantic or non-romantic), intimacy with communities, and intimacy with self. For communities, an ace might say that “this activist group I’m part of is a primary relationship,” or “this band is a primary relationship.” And taking care of yourself, prioritizing intimacy with self over intimacy with other people—that’s still seen as a valid form of intimacy.
I asked about children. “Raising kids is a community-level thing,” David pointed out. “There’s a lot of ace anxiety about how there aren’t a lot of good templates for community co-parenting.” This anxiety is something I’ve seen in the polyamory community, too— and even among monogamous people in the “normal” Western world. Are we really all going to do this nuclear family thing given that resources get scarcer every day?
We’ve come to the point where young people can discuss, publicly and ad nauseam, our sexual options. The “traditional family” has responded by clinging grimly to its status as the best way to raise children. So we’re now in a position where hard-won individual freedoms allow people of all genders to try creative approaches to intimacy, yet if we don’t support institutional alternatives to the traditional family, then we haven’t taken our creative approaches to intimacy to their logical conclusions.
A big part of getting older is developing a serious set of intentions about relationships and partners. I used to have so many relationships that “just happened,” and I simply don’t have that anymore. I’m much more careful about how relationships start, now that I am looking for a partner with whom to raise kids. But it’s so hard to be rational about these things—it’s hard, and maybe it’s foolish, because after all I do want someone to love as well, not just a person to live with.
Of course, alternative sexual arrangements are especially complex when the goal is to build a relationship to last. It’s inherently harder work than monogamy, with more moving parts. The poly community often smooths over stories of unstable poly situations, but there are plenty of stories of people leaving primaries for secondaries—even when the primaries had lots of careful discussions and boundary-setting. There are also stories of people neglecting primary relationship responsibilities, distracting themselves with fun times with secondaries. A polyvangelist could argue that these problems wouldn’t have happened if there weren’t already issues in the primary relationship, and that might be true. Yet it’s just as easy to argue that it’s not worth risking a relationship that might be more stable—or might be just plain easier—if it were monogamous.
In my ideal world, I’d have a polyamorous S&M marriage with the expectation of kids—but polyamory and S&M are both things that I would compromise (and have compromised) for relationships with the right people. One model I’ve been playing with lately is suggesting monogamy for the early part of a relationship in order to build stability—but placing an expectation on the table that we’ll discuss polyamory in six or eight months or something. The problem there, though, is that a partner—especially one who’s unfamiliar with poly—may be willing to think about “poly later,” but end up being unwilling to actually do poly later. So taking this approach means taking that risk.
Even though I’m a sex writer, I have moved away from defining sex as the most important part of a relationship. Maybe this is part of getting more flexible about my sexuality over time—or just part of my bone-deep desire for kids. Or maybe this is just part of getting older: sex starts to recede in importance and we hold tighter to other values and desires. I think to myself, “I’m a sex educator! I’m a modern woman! My sexual rights are undefeatable and indefatigable! I deserve to have it all!” Yet the more I look at the questions surrounding modern marriage, and sex, and femininity, the less I feel like I know. I’m still figuring it out: if I do get married, then, what can I hope for? And what am I willing to compromise?
Art credit: Fluid Forms