Polyamory & the Pence Rule

I started out this blog series intending to blog about sex every day for a month. It’s been well over a month, and I haven’t come close to blogging every day. That’s just WAY more writing than I can handle. I’m just going to continue on the topic, posting at random intervals until I get tired of it. How does that sound? 🙂

As I’ve been writing on sex, I’ve gotten a lot of reading suggestions from friends. I’ve been reading as voraciously as it’s possible for a slow reader to do. This suggestion from an old friend (who knows my background very well) was one of the more intriguing ones:

This is going to be an odd suggestion, and you are of course welcome to ignore it, but… The best sex/relationship advise I have heard since the end of my marriage has nearly all come out of the polyamorous/ethical nonmonogamy world. Which, may sound odd, but the thing is, in order to balance multiple relationships, you have to first think far more deeply about relationships than most people ever do to begin with, and then you wind up with far more practical experience than most ever get.

Based on his recommendation, I’ve been reading The Smart Girl’s Guide to Polyamory, Everything You Need to Know About Open Relationships, Non-Monogamy, and Alternative Love by Dedeker WinstonI want to make something really clear from the beginning of this post: polyamory is not something that’s on the table for me. It’s just not. Moral questions aside, I’m just not built that way. I could spill some serious ink on that, but I’ll save it for another time.

So, with that out of the way, can I say that my friend was spot on? Can I call myself a polyamorist who doesn’t believe in having multiple sex partners at the same time? The book wasn’t just packed with really good, practical advice for dealing with people (I learned more from this book about good arguments than I have almost anywhere else), there were a ton of things I agreed with on a more philosophical level. I’ll probably write more posts about this, but the huge point of agreement that leapt out at me was this:

The way our culture treats monogamous relationships saddles them with too much and deprives us of significant benefits from other relationships.

One of the beautiful parts of Smart Girl’s Guide was when Winston wrote about how much love there is to be found everywhere. How polyamorists don’t like to tie themselves to one person because there are so many amazing people in the world, because no one person will meet all of your needs. Smart Girl’s Guide talks about raising children in communities, about open lines of communication between multiple partners, about going to one person to meet some needs and another for others. That reminds me of how I’ve learned to live my life, first out of necessity but now out of appreciation for the richness of my life with so much love from all sides. Spending years in a non-functioning marriage sucked, but one thing it did do for me was force me to look for healthy, supporting relationships outside of that one relationship and to appreciate the power of platonic touch. (I also pursued less healthy alternatives, but we’ll get to that in a minute.)

If you pursue it, there is a wealth of relationship to be had. I won’t pretend I’m great at this, but it is something I value and appreciate and put effort into. I’m not currently in a romantic relationship, but I have friends I can turn to in emergencies. I have a whole flock of people who will give me long hugs or hold my hand when I need it. (One friend has a 20-second minimum for hugs. It’s the best.) There are people who cook for me when I’m sick and check in on me when I’m down. People who have held me so tightly when I cried that I got snot in their hair. (Yeah, that’s happened. Twice. You’ve been warned.)

When I talk to friends all over the country, it is clear that my experience is tragically exceptional. Our culture is suffering from a deep, pervasive poverty of relationships. I’ve stopped counting the number of friends who have told me they are chronically lonely. Stay-at-home moms and retirees who barely have contact with the world outside their homes other than Facebook. People who don’t have friends other than their spouses. Sure, some of that can be personality driven. Some people are super introverted and they are happy that way. That’s fine, and it’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about people who are lonely, isolated, and deeply, deeply unhappy.

What does that have to do with sex? Well, I’m glad you asked. The common thread I see between the polyamory book and evangelical “purity culture” is that both associate that kind of closeness primarily with sexual relationships (inside or outside of marriage). Smart Girl jumps to the conclusion that, since we should be pursuing deeper relationships with more people, we should also be having sex with them. Purity culture guards carefully against all kinds of extramarital relationships because it sees any intimacy as a stepping stone to sex. Think about the Pence/Billy Graham Rule, that implies that men and women shouldn’t be alone together under any circumstances because it’s dangerous to their marriages. I have married friends who don’t text or email friends of the opposite sex without including their spouse in the conversation.

Those are unfortunately not uncommon, but one less common rule I’ve heard of that is worth mentioning because boils my blood is a 3-second limit on hugs. Between anyone.(Old news, I know. But still annoying.) WHAT ON GOD’S GREAT EARTH IS WRONG WITH PEOPLE IF THEY CAN’T HUG ANYONE WITHOUT FEELING FRISKY? I mean, am I crazy to think that most physical touch can and should be platonic? (Seriously, even in a romantic relationship, how much touch time is spent on sex? Shouldn’t there be just as much time holding hands and snuggling on the couch and sleeping in each other’s arms? I’m a big fan of sex, but other physical contact across all kinds of relationships is also great. I want both!!) Okay, I’m done ranting…

So… let’s consider that we evangelicals may be addressing a culture that is relationally malnourished by cutting back its food. If I thought I needed to have sex with people to have those kinds of close relationships, I would. Oh wait, I HAVE. Having started an affair over text message, I will tell you right now that lax rules about texting weren’t the heart of the problem. The heart was loneliness. When well-meaning friends told me, “take these guys numbers off your phone!” that’s pretty much what I told them. If I’m starving, locking the refrigerator isn’t going to help when there’s a store right down the street.

I don’t think rampant infidelity (particularly in the church) is a problem created by easy access. I think it stems, in part, from thinking it is only (or even mainly) romantic relationships that will feed our need, then limiting other relationships to protect The Sacred One. We are afraid because our romantic relationships aren’t what they should be, so we elevate them by digging a deep trench around them, carving away, diminishing, even eliminating other relationships. When we’re trying to keep the bad stuff out, we’re keeping the good out, too. When we put all of our eggs in the one rather unrealistic relationship basket, we’re contributing to a toxically lonely environment for ourselves.

I think healthy friendships make for healthy partners make for healthy partnerships. I think it’s very possible that normalizing platonic friendships between men and women and building more community in general makes cheating less enticing. If I don’t depend on one relationship to meet all my needs, I won’t give up on it so readily. And–dare I say it?–it seems like sex should be better when it’s an expression of joy overflowing from the life I have rather than an act of desperate grasping for the one I don’t…

1 thought on “Polyamory & the Pence Rule”

  1. […] I wrote recently about how we often use sex to address loneliness. I honestly think a big part of our sexual culture (from any perspective—oversexed, undersexed, the rules we make, the rules we break) is not about sex, but driven by or shaped to address problems of loneliness and isolation. I think this is a bigger issue for men than for women, for two reasons. The first is that women are taught from an early age to solve problems socially, even problems that aren’t social in nature. Give us an engineering problem, and we’ll address it by building a team and talking about it. Men (for better or worse) are taught to be more independent. I don’t think either is necessarily bad—they both have advantages and disadvantages. However, when it comes to addressing problems related to social isolation, we women seem to be more well-equipped. If nothing else, we seem to be more aware when we’re lonely. […]

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