There are many courses of action that have been proposed in the wake of the California shootings and most of them have merit. Gun control, anti-misogyny measures, better mental health care, setting good examples for our sons, men speaking out to support women – the list goes on.
However, in the words of Albert Einstein, “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” By the same token, if patriarchal attitudes are the root of the problem, we can’t expect a patriarchal society to solve it.
Many people see the core issue of Elliot Rodgers’ manifesto, and the reason he decided to act as he did, as being male entitlement to women’s bodies or attentions, which is just one of the more extreme attitudes that can arise with male privilege in our patriarchal society. And therein lies the root of the problem with trying to change prevailing attitudes – we live in a society where men hold the power. And no, not all men are actively subordinating women, but consciously and unconsciously enough do that makes any direct change glacially slow, if not impossible.
To me, however, there is another fundamental issue this tragedy highlights: the idea that love between individuals is a commodity, like gold or pork bellies; something to be gained, held and jealously protected from others who seek to “steal” it from us. That is the basic premise of traditional monogamy – that all our romantic and sexual love must reside within our relationship with one and only one other person. To share that love outside the relationship by definition invalidates it, and all other romantic attachments are viewed as either leading to monogamy or viewed as suspect, if not forbidden entirely. This is the model that most of us grew up with and it works fine for a lot of people. But newer generations of people are starting to see the concept of love as a lifelong, exclusive commitment to one other person for what it is – a choice instead of the rule.
We live in an increasingly resource-constrained world, and in fact, my day job is helping to promote renewable energy, something that I’m paid for and proud to do. I view love as the ultimate renewable resource, as abundant as the sun that powers millions of my company’s solar panels each day. We as human beings are capable of loving more than one person, just the way we can love more than one parent, child or friend. It is only our society that tells us that falling in love with someone means we must not love, nor be able to love, another.
So what if we approached our relationships with the attitude that love is not a scarce commodity, but rather an abundant renewable resource? What if, like ancient Persian and Sanskrit, we had 80 different words to describe the different qualities and valences of communal and erotic feeling, instead of just the single four-letter word available to us now? What if we had titles for people who make up our intentional family besides husband, wife and spouse?
I've spent the last six years of my life figuring out the different dimensions of this idea, and the last four actively crusading for awareness of polyamory and open relationship styles. I truly believe that if we can foster more ways to love each other, this world will be a better place for everybody.
Do I think polyamory is the answer to preventing shooting rampages? Certainly not in the short term. In fact, it may cause women more problems by making the “I have a boyfriend” excuse for deflecting attention a little less effective. But as many people have said, the whole reason that excuse is effective – that men respect each other’s “territory” more than they respect a woman’s own agency to decide for herself – is itself objectionable and a symptom of the greater problem.
My advocacy for polyamory is playing the long game, imagining how the world might be different generations from now. Also, I’m thinking about how we can change things by subverting, rather than directly challenging the patriarchy. Relationship choice is something that every individual has total control over without the need to pass laws or change how others behave outside of their direct interactions with you. You can decide for yourself if you want to change your own concept of love from one of scarcity to one of abundance.
Polyamorous relationships are subversive to the status quo because they force you to examine your own feelings and the motivations behind your behavior toward your partner. They also require constant, honest communication and are based on continually obtaining consent from all parties. So instead of relationships being goal-oriented, poly relationships continuously grow and evolve over time, possibly including a legal marriage, but also possibly including new partners and negotiating relationships that are custom-tailored to each individual situation. In short, polyamory shifts responsibility for personal happiness and fulfillment away from the relationship itself and puts it on each individual, giving everyone their own agency to create whatever relationships they desire.
There’s a reason why many of the leaders in the modern polyamory movement are women. While the idea of polygamy (one man, many women) has been around for a long time and is still practiced in some cultures, the idea of polyandry (one woman, many men) is much less prevalent. So the idea of polyamory (any number of partners of any gender) is the ultimate expression of sexual equality, completing the sexual revolution that started with the advent of birth control by giving women more control over how to satisfy their romantic and sexual desires in an ethical way.
That’s also why it’s easier to sell an idea like polyamory on an individual level – people who struggle with monogamy find the idea appealing, and the divorce rate in this country suggests that it’s a large population. It’s something that’s actionable today, as opposed to, say, changing how you raise your sons or fighting misogyny in general. That’s not to say those things aren’t necessary or important – we need people fighting on all fronts, for short and long term goals, to fully address this problem.
As I often say at the beginning of meetings for Open Love NY, the group I helped to establish in 2009, we are not looking to “turn the world poly,” just as the gay rights movement isn’t trying to turn the world gay (despite what opponents might say). But simply by making open relationships a visible and viable option for everyone, we’re striking a blow against the idea that anyone can “own” another person, or that anyone can “expect” love from another person, whether they are in a relationship or not.
Today, we are still working on making it safe for same-sex couples to love one another, but at least we can see that day approaching. The next step in our society’s diversity evolution is to make it safe for all forms of love between consenting adults. Anyone new to the idea of polyamory will probably question how successful it can be for the general population, and they would be right to do so.
Poly isn’t easy. It takes a lot of work, but at least there is the promise of a more honest and joyful life as an incentive for people to learn about it. And ultimately, I believe that positivity will be a more effective catalyst for change than browbeating and shaming people. If we create more ways for people to find and experience love, then we will be one step closer to a world where we will never again have to witness senseless acts of violence fueled by hatred and disrespect.