Breaking Down Another “Normal” in Mimi Schippers’s Beyond Monogamy

 

Traditional stories tell tales of a princess finding her prince, and more recently the narrative has accepted princesses finding princesses or princes finding princes. But what happens if finding “the one” turns into finding the two? Or three? Mimi Schippers’s Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Polyqueer Sexualities addresses the “compulsory mononormativity” that steers the search for “the one” and silences conversations about non-monogamous relationships.

Schippers has degrees in sociology from Northeastern Illinois University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is currently a professor of both sociology and gender and sexuality studies at Tulane University. Much of her recent research is on polyamorous relationships across cultures and time and how polyamory intersects with race, gender, and sexuality. Beyond Monogamy is her second book and the culmination of a decade’s worth of research and writing about polyqueer relationships (Shippers, web).

The author establishes mononormativity as an institutionalized ideal that intersects with race and gender and attempts to break down the associated hierarchies of “polyqueer” sexualities (Schippers 25). She compares mononormativity to the more well-known heteronormativity as a example of silencing social practices that ostracize groups of people, in this case people who consensually take part in romantic or sexual relationships with multiple people. By looking at a variety of polyqueer situations that take place across gender, race, and class, Schippers calls various power dynamics into question. For example, in a monogamous heterosexual relationship, how would each partner be seen if they were to “cheat” on their partner? A man is assumed to be unsatisfied with his partner, and in the face of an exciting opportunity, is “less likely to control himself (44).” However, a woman who cheats is making a careful decision which “reflects a fundamental character flaw such as selfishness or materialism (45).” In this situation there are gender-based assumptions that place the man in a position in which he can cheat with limited repercussions, meanwhile the woman who cheats is fundamentally flawed. This ideology establishes what it takes to be a “good” woman: being loyal to her partner no matter what. Schippers presents similar arguments applying to black men and bisexual men whose identities are often culturally defined in order to promote certain expectations of respectability, i.e. a relationship with a single woman.

Beyond Monogamy begins with an extensive introduction to the topic of the polyqueer sexualities to situate them within the already established theories of queer sexualities and normativity. Schippers claims that until this point there have not been critiques of mononormativity, a gap she intends to fill with this book (Schippers 10). She address research into incidental cases of non-monogamy within both the straight and queer communities such as male-dominated polygamy, but the author notes that these are examples of isolated exceptions to monogamy (16). Schippers proceeds to identify four situations that take place specifically between two men and one woman that reflect the effects compulsory mononormativity: open-relationships, standards of respectability, competition between men, and a fear of non-heterosexual relationships. Each of these issues is dedicated a chapter in which the author explores the complexities of polyqueer relationships more closely. To do this, she uses research and theory established in the introduction to critically examine fictional narratives that exemplify the relationship at hand. Some of these narratives are creations of the author while others are taken from scenes of movies and play so as to provide concrete examples of non-monogamous relationships that are accessible to a more general audience.

The balance of academic theory and research with analysis of tangible examples is one of the greatest strengths of Beyond Monogamy. Presentation of other research clearly positions Schippers in the academic conversation and helps frame her theory. The conversation with other respected academics and theorists such as Michael Foucault legitimizes her argument and asserts her authority to critique mononormativity. At the same time, the use of concrete narratives caters to both academics and non-academics as a point of entry to her argument. Examples substantiate vocabulary and concepts that are otherwise very specific and theoretical. Even though the introduction is rather dense, the following chapters strive to actively engage a variety of readers who can relate to different situations. This increased accessibility to her book opens up a wider audience who can read and appreciate it.

At the same time, the wider audience that Schippers can attract has its limits. She intentionally limits her discussion to polyqueer relationships between one  cisgender woman and two heterosexual men because, she claims,

“This relationship configuration… is particularly instructive not just in terms of the role of monogamy in hegemonic gender relations, but also in the queer and feminist potential for polyqueer sexualities and relationships to disrupt the meanings and embodiment of racialized masculinities and femininities.” (31)

However, throughout the book she refers tangentially to other polyqueer relationships such as gay men who choose to have a variety of partners at the same time without justifying the importance of these relationships and explaining how they are less relevant than the specific relationship-structure she is examining. Using one specific structure as an ideal of sorts produces a tone of othering of different polyqueer situations that do no follow this pattern. Therefore, even though Schippers produces an argument that is accessible to a non-academic audience, her narrow scope is a severe limitation in terms of who can relate to the theory that she presents.

Overall, the book is a very enlightening introduction to the concept of mononormativity. It clearly presents a variety of instances in which the ideal of monogamy unjustly smothers polyqueer relationships. Her critique of controlling power structures explains the construction of the monogamous “normal” while asserting that those same power structures to more harm than good. The narrow focus of the book leaves room for further inquiry into more diverse polyqueer relationships and serves as a stepping stone to more developments of mononormative  theory.

Works Cited

Schippers, Mimi. Beyond Monogamy: Polyamory and the Future of Polyqueer Sexualities. New York: New York University Press, 2016. Print.

http://www.mimischippers.com