I’ve believed for a long time that the personal is political… with a small p (I’m not talking about party politics, nor even government here.)
We all make choices about how to behave. We balance our freedom and our responsibility. Some of us have privileges that give us more choices than others, of course. And a lot of us like to feel like the choices we make matter – like we can make a small difference towards changing the world, through living by our principles.
“Be the change that you want to see in the world” (a misquote, usually attributed to Mahatma Gandhi) is a phrase I try to live by. My life choices reflect my values and the things I’d like to see change – for example, I don’t eat meat, I recycle and buy second-hand things, I’ve taken part in protests and marches, I’ve devised and delivered projects that bring communities together, and more. In these small, everyday ways, I like to think I’m making a contribution to change things for the better, even if that contribution seems tiny and far from perfect.
And I am a feminist. The change I most want to see in the world is an end to the patriarchy. I know that these terms are sometimes unhelpful though, so to clarify… I mean working towards gender equality – towards changing the culture we live in so that people of all genders have a choice about how to live. This is not just about ‘women’s rights’ (although there’s a whole lot of things that need sorting out for women, like e.g. equal pay). I want to be very clear that I think men and people of other genders will benefit from smashing the patriarchy. It would be a whole other blog (or thousands of blogs) to explore that in detail, so I’m not going to here. I’m going to use some other words instead.
I think we are taught to believe that men are predators and women are prey – and I believe that this over-simplified assumption about gender differences is both untrue and massive problem. It’s led to us living in a culture of entitlement, rather than a culture of consent. It’s led to limited choices for people of all genders about who we’re supposed to be and how we’re supposed to behave in relationships with one another. It’s led to us living a lie, not choosing, but behaving like we think we’re instinctively meant to behave. ‘Nice girls don’t.’ ‘Boys will be boys.’ ‘She’s asking for it dressed like that’. ‘He can’t keep it in his pants.’
The core love script is described and learned and understood in this context – it’s language is gendered. In the fairytales, love songs and movies the story is (mostly) the same: the princess is rescued by the prince, she waits for Mr Right, she gets hurt by Mr Wrong, she catches her man and finally gets to be the bride, he finally gives up his freedom and settles down, and they all live happily ever after… a good friend of mine summed it up in a simple sentence: “Women use sex to get love and men use love to get sex.”
Clearly my friend’s statement is untrue. It is not the natural order for men to be predatory and for women to be prey. And if you don’t believe me, have a look at this TED talk, exploring the evolution of human sexuality. But what bothered me most about that statement was that (to some extent) it rang true.
What if you’re a woman who likes sex but isn’t looking for a relationship? What if you’re *non-binary or *genderfluid? What if you’re a homosexual man and you want to find love? What if you’re *asexual? How does anyone choose to navigate love and sex and relationships, if my friend’s statement is true?
*What if you’re someone who doesn’t know what any of these words means? Then Click here. And if you are someone who knows what all those words mean, then forgive me while I drop into the oversimplified binary to make a point in the paragraphs that follow.
The notion that men should be only sex-driven and unemotional is part of a set of absurd standards about ‘masculinity’ that are causing vastly disproportionate mental health issues and suicide rates among men. It’s literally killing men, discouraging them from learning how to express their emotions, isolating their emotional connection into just one relationship – just look at the spike in suicide rates when men get divorced. But these standards are hard to break away from – the man who expresses his loving and nurturing feelings openly, or tries to connect emotionally with friends of any gender, or explores his sexuality with empathy and carefulness, will be questioned and challenged and defined as ‘less manly’.
The woman who likes and wants to have sex with lots of people is also judged harshly. If she dresses provocatively, acts flirtatiously, or flaunts her promiscuity then her right to consent to sex will be questioned, her boundaries blurred – and some will feel entitled to her attention, or her body – and some will assume she’s not worthy or capable of love. By giving away something she is constantly told to hold dear – her sex – she devalues it, and so society has to devalue her – a ‘slut’.
The dictionary definition of the word ‘slut’ is gendered – in American or British dictionaries it varies slightly but is defined as a derogatory or insulting term for a woman who is sexually promiscuous. I prefer the definition of slut used by Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy in their book ‘The Ethical Slut’ – “a person of any gender who has the courage to lead life according to the radical proposition that sex is nice and pleasure is good for you.”
It is indeed a radical proposition.
Because if you defy society’s expectations of your gender, and instead approach sex and love and relationships however feels right for you, then you are challenging the foundations of that belief system. You are not predator, not prey – not entitled to anyone’s anything. By saying ‘no’ to that you are deciding exactly what you want to say ‘yes’ to, and enabling others to do the same. In your own sphere of influence (however big or small), the personal, the political, you are creating a culture of consent.
I remember the moment, at a feminist discussion in 2015, when I first heard the word ‘polyamory’. It was suggested that by opening up to multiple, consensual loving relationships women could challenge traditional, patriarchal standards – a conscious and visible rejection of ownership, possession, and entitlement in our personal relationships. I went away and read up on it. Where I was at, personally and politically, I recognised this was something I wanted to explore. I didn’t know where that choice would take me, or what it would mean. I wasn’t prepared for the realities that this blog will go on to explore – the self discovery, acceptance, and love I would find. But I did know that I would be judged – that some would use the word ‘slut’, and some would question my boundaries, my choices, my consent, my professionalism, my sexuality, my motherhood, my relationships, my love. But I was willing to take that risk, and I made a choice.
Polyamory is just one approach, of course, and I’m not suggesting it’s for everyone. And I’m not suggesting that polyamory is always feminist, or political – there’s lots of ways to be consensually non-monogamous and many of these really aren’t about challenging current standard beliefs about gender and relationships. And many of the polyamorous people I know didn’t make a conscious choice, never mind a politically motivated one, to become polyamorous – for most it was a personally-driven thing, for some an expression of what (for them) feels like innate need to love more than one, and for many a way to love with authenticity and honesty.
Someone who read my first blog said it had prompted them to question if their monogamous relationship was a conscious choice, or just following the script. They decided that they had chosen – and I’m really glad. Because making a choice – deciding what you do with your life, sex, love and relationships – that can be political as well as personal.
So be the change you want to see, and love the way you choose to love. If we all did that, maybe we would change the world.
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