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Whatever Happened to Feminist Critiques of Monogamy?

Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott

During the 1970s (hetero)sexuality was identified as a key site of women's subordination. Feminists sought to enhance women's sexual autonomy, to secure the right to define our own sexualities, to resist sexual coercion and exploitation, to contest male-defined definitions of sexual pleasures and practices and to explore our own desires. One central feature of these debates, which is now frequently forgotten, was an emergent critique of monogamy that cut across other differences (between lesbians and straight women, between self-defined socialist and radical feminists). Drawing critically on the ideas of the sexual revolution and on older socialist and egalitarian traditions, as well as on more recent analyses of patriarchal relations, monogamy was questioned as a cornerstone of patriarchal privilege, enshrining men's rights over women's bodies, and as central to an ideology of romantic love through which women's compliance was secured. More radically, it was seen as antithetical to egalitarian sexual relations: it reduced human beings to property, promoted destructive emotions such as jealousy and emotional dependency as positive proofs of 'love' and impoverished our wider social relations. In this paper we will chart the rise and fall of feminist critiques of monogamy, question how and why these ideas came to be sidelined in subsequent debates about sexuality, despite the decline of life-long monogamy as a way of life within the general population. In particular we will focus on the ways in which feminists have unwittingly bought into some commonsense ideas about sexuality that were once questioned: in particular the 'specialness' of sexual relationships, the idea that sexual intimacy is somehow superior to all other forms of intimacy, that 'fidelity' in relationships is synonymous with sexual exclusivity. Finally we will suggest ways of reformulating a contemporary critique of monogamy.

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