Mononormativity

It seems certain that the habit of marriage has been gradually developed, and that almost promiscuous intercourse was once extremely common throughout the world.” – Darwin, The Descent of Man

Let me add a few more words of explanation to what I wrote yesterday on the subject of mononormativity, a term coined by Pieper and Bauer (2005) to refer to the normative social matrix of monogamy in its various cultural manifestations. Sociological research into mononormativity is very much in its infancy, meaning that unfortunately there is not a lot I can base myself on in order precisely to map the concept and its influence (I think we have some idea of the economic circumstances under which the monogamous norm developed, but little real grasp on the social mechanisms which maintain and enforce it).

When I was fourteen, the world around me, uninvited, started changing. The hitherto somewhat annoying subspecies known as “girls” suddenly became objects of intense fascination – and intense fraternal rivalry. Handicapped by my childhood emotional injuries, and with no manual to follow, I was ill-placed to play this game. It didn’t take long for this to become clear to me, and so, rather than make a fool of myself, I placed my erotic ambitions on hold; instead I focused on getting into a position of financial independence from which I imagined I would be better able to shape my life. At fifteen, I developed generalized fasciculations which, though it turned out they were benign, I was convinced were the onset of a muscular wasting disease. This was the state in which I spent all of my later teens and my college years.

My pubescent sexuality was born into a social context, one in which I knew, was linked to and cared about the objects of my affection; but it was soon divorced from it. Unable to develop in an integrated way, the sexual drive was transferred to images and fantasms, objects without social context and unable to receive love, with which I engaged in a perplexed monologue. I am sure I am describing here the sexual development of a majority of teenage boys of my cohort in our culture.

Several years ago I did quite a bit of work on my childhood traumas, but this particular, pubescent trauma I never paid much attention to. I have at least the impression that it is generally supposed in psychoanalysis that the resolution of earlier experiences will also resolve later ones and that these latter need no special attention. But this, I now think, is not true; this part of my life also needed to be revisited. Until recently, I had never given it much thought.

In fact I did not give it any thought recently either, but I received a gift of healing during a shamanic soul retrieval session which specifically related to this, and since then I have actively been trying to make friends again not only with my inner child, but also my inner fourteen-year-old : a much unloved and forgotten creature. That I suddenly adopt a caring attitude to him, asking him to contribute to my adult life, is, I am sure, a great and unexpected relief to him.

Pubescent male sexuality is a bubbling soup. The objects of ones affections are not chosen according to some fixed set of preferences: it is a time of experimentation, and tactical opportunism, a game in which one seeks to optimize a complex equation involving not only the girl one is dating and sexual payoffs, but also ones reputation and position in the group. Exclusive partnering, advocated usually by the girls, who to be fair also need a mating strategy, is discovered to be part of the rules of the game, adaptation to which is a pragmatic necessity; it is, however, absolutely alien to the subjective experience and every teenage boy knows it. We are by nature polyamorous, but once we discover the sweet pleasures of the union of body and soul, we dive deeply into it, forgetting, in the intoxication, that the circumstances which enabled it had a lot to do with pure chance and assuming that the rules we played by enabled the reward we obtained.

I think it is by now an established scientific fact that, even if sexual appetite may experience a monogamous phase at the outset of a relationship, this does not last for very long. Monogamy in the early days of a relationship may be natural, but subsequently it is only a choice – or no choice at all. Nevertheless, not only the myth, but the institutions of monogamy pervade society, compelling an unnatural compliance with their dictates on pain of social disopprobium, ostracism or worse. In the same way as society is androcentric and heteronormative, it is mononormative.

Mononormativity does violence to our biological nature and severely limits our extraordinary ability and desire to love. And as I have argued elsewhere, restoration of our biological nature is a prerequisite of sustained spiritual growth, at least at the community level, because human beings are not going collectively to be happy in an environment to which they are biologically unadapted.

In its origins, tantra was as iconoclastic in regard to mononormativity as it was in relation to other social institutions such as diet and the caste system. Tantric practitioners frequently did not even know the identity of the person with whom they entered into sacred union. All this though, of course, was devised in a world far removed from our own. Today, the central image of Shiva and Shakti in yabyum enjoys wide appeal in part because it can easily seem (although this is clearly an incorrect interpretation) to endorse the primacy of monogamy – these primal characters are indeed destined to each other and alone in the universe.

Now, while some schools of tantra orient themselves towards couples practice, this is certainly not generally the case: indeed I know few practitioners who are, by conviction, much less de facto, monogamous in the traditional sense. Nevertheless, I would maintain that societal mononormativity influences practice more subtly. People may embrace a rarefied, ritualized interaction with the opposite sex, even a very intimate one, but they do it in a spirit of dissociation from the biological foundation of their sexuality, in a way which is almost ascetic, and certainly unerotic.

My inner fourteen-year-old is mystified by this disenchantment. He wants a place at the table. He likes it messy and raw. Indeed, this for him is alignment with ecstasy; the ascetic, transcendent imagery is incomprehensible.

We can live a life in alignment with spirit only if we are aligned with our biological nature. Then life’s experiences wake us up, move us in new directions, bring healing and creativity; just as falling in love always has, the world over. We are in a state of bliss when we are constantly falling in love with all around us, the physical and biological world and also our fellow human beings. For me, if I review my life, my sexual instinct has always been the major driver of healing and renewal. But that instinct, like the spirit, blows where it will. I am not its master; and in fact I am not the master of anything about myself, I am more like a servant of myself, curious to discover who I am and what I can do and experience in the world. This attitude of humility and service towards ones own essence is, I think, key to the spiritual life and to alignment and abundance.

This is why I insist that all notions of mononormativity within a couple must be banished if its component parts are serious about their spiritual life, and indeed about living their relationship as an adventure in growth and healing. One simply cannot place any a priori constraints on where the breath of spirit may blow. Because we have absolutely no idea, not even the remotest basis for an idea. Radical honesty within a couple only makes any sense if it is based on radical honesty to oneself, a person one cannot presume to know but is always discovering. One cannot bind this unknown self. Indeed, the discovery of self, this unbinding of Prometheus, is the spiritual path.

I do not think this makes dyadic relationships impossible or even undesirable, but I think it is a very strict condition regarding which, at the level of aspiration and shared values at least, no compromise is possible. When desire taps on my shoulder, that is a moment of opportunity and rebirth. I owe it to myself, my partner, and the world, to greet her with open arms.

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4 Responses to Mononormativity

  1. Jangali says:

    At the same time, of course, as I wrote earlier in my piece on polyamory, we also need to be aware that duality is absolutely fundamental in a way which higher order configurations are not. That is to say, the meeting of souls, whether it is erotic or not, can only take place in a dyadic configuration. This is a point I feel polyamorous theory often misses. There is no such real thing as a triad or higher order union, only a superposition of dyads. At any given moment, we can encounter only a single other in true depth. Two dissolves into one and duality into non-duality.

    A lot of people are afraid to really abandon themselves to union with a person other than their partner: however far they are prepared to go in their interactions with other persons than the primary partner, they want to keep “something” exclusive to the partnership. This is a clear vestige of mononormativity. It seems to me that one absolutely must abandon oneself completely and unreservedly to ANY partner in the moment of encounter. Life choices are one thing, there is necessarily a lot of structure to them; but love should be beyond choice. Nobody feels they cannot embrace the sunset because they are in a relationship, and by the same token they should also fully embrace other human beings, as a step on the way to embracing all other human beings and full alignment with spirit. Arbitrarily excluding sexuality from that embrace, not allowing it to be present if it wishes to be, is a rejection of humanity and a rejection of spirit.

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