This essay is a sequel to my earlier post on polyamory and feminism. In the earlier essay, I briefly mentioned that there is a danger of polyamory slipping towards forms of nonmonogamy that are unfriendly to women. This essay is an elaboration of those concerns. Also, I discussed the double standard recently on the polyweekly podcast, and this essay covers those points in more detail. In addition, many of the below ideas were brainstormed with my sweetie Andrea Zanin, of Sex Geek fame. The historical references in this essay are from Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, a History, which is an amazingly accessible history book.
There is a double standard for men and women when it comes to sexuality. The way we usually point this out is by discussing what is said of men or women who sleep around. Men are praised; women are condemned as sluts, tramps, whores, and so on. The double standard extends to most or all of our understanding around sex: men are supposed to originate sex, and sex is supposed to happen to women; men are supposed to enjoy sex, there seems to be less concern around whether women enjoy it; and so on.
I want to shed light on one particular aspect of the double standard, namely the double standard around nonmonogamy. Namely, that nonmonogamy is generally considered to be for men, while monogamy is largely considered to be for women, with men only paying lip service to it.
This particular double standard has been going on for a while. It was readily acknowledged in the 1700’s, but in the 1800’s things became a bit more muddied. A standard of the Victorian gentleman arose, and gentlemen were not supposed to sleep around. However, it was still well-understood that men would want to sleep around, just that they should restrain themselves, and the women they were with should influence them towards purity. Purity was associated with women in that era (well, some women: wives and daughters), and purity was code for monogamy.
The basic idea has not changed much in the two hundred years since. While nonmonogamy is technically seen as a bad thing for men, it is one that we expect them to do anyways. We expect men to cheat more than women, though statistics have consistently shown that rates are very similar for men and women, with men only slightly ahead. (And notably, statistics on this matter were very similar one hundred years ago.) We expect men’s thoughts to stray, and we expect men to be afraid to settle down or commit, even though men are actually more interested in marrying than women.
On the flip side, we expect women to want monogamy. Because of this, we expect women to be more jealous than men, though in my personal experience the reverse is true. We use the idea of purity as a stand-in for women’s virginity and monogamy, and we create all kinds of purity rituals for women, from white dresses to creepy father-daughter “purity balls”.
In short, there’s a lot of brainwashing going on here. Nonmonogamy is coded as masculine, and monogamy is coded as feminine. The culture is desperately pushing this particular double standard onto us, but the push is mostly failing to change people’s actual behavior. The double standard exists for a reason: it is there to convince us to behave in a certain idealized manner, namely for women to always be chaste and monogamous, and for men to have sex with as many people as possible.
I say “desperately” because if anything, expressions of the double standard have gotten more shrill over the past couple decades, as everyone from conservative commentators to evolutionary psychologists attempt to convince us that men are naturally nonmonogamous and women are naturally monogamous, in the face of mounting evidence that they are simply wrong.
Something has been changing in the past fifty years: for the first time, women are largely financially independent. While we do not yet have a society that gives its financial due to women (or even anything close), most women are now in a position where they can leave a relationship and survive on their own. This was typically not possible prior to the 60’s. This means that women have more actual power, and women in relationships with men are using this power to either demand more sexual (or relationship) partners, or to demand that the men they are with actually remain monogamous. In other words, things are equalizing slowly, and the heavy double standard is being promulgated as part of a rearguard action, attempting to preserve an inequality that is slipping away.
One change we have been seeing is that there are more forms of nonmonogamy available to women, and older forms of nonmonogamy are becoming more friendly towards women. From what I understand, swinging has changed to be more friendly towards women since the 80’s. Open relationships and polyamory are surprisingly gender-neutral. And queer women are becoming more and more likely to embrace nonmonogamy, with bisexual women strongly participating in polyamory.
However, the long history of the nonmonogamous double standard is not shed easily, and there is still a huge amount of cultural pressure trying to force us into older models, ones which encouraged men’s nonmonogamy while discouraging women’s. In any mixed-gender nonmonogamous movement, there is a constant danger from this pressure, namely that the double standard will reassert itself in practice. We can expect that this could kill a movement, since in this day and age if women do not feel like they are getting what they want in a particular nonmonogamous context, they will leave, dooming that particular movement.
Also, even when a nonmonogamous movement is relatively successful in establishing fair gender relations, there are still people within the movement that carry the culture’s baggage on this issue, causing problems for themselves and whomever they interact with. I see this happening a lot in the polyamory movement. We need to be able to identify these behaviors, not to purge these people (typically men) from the movement, but rather to be able to move people towards models that are fair to women. It should be noted that this is even helpful for men who were formerly attached to the double standard, since they will have a much more successful nonmonogamous experience if they are not trying to establish an unfair situation.
In this essay, our first step in identifying patterns of double-standard nonmonogamy is to look at various forms of nonmonogamy (past or present) that have embraced a double standard. Then, we can measure our current nonmonogamous practice against these forms, and see what is similar and what is different, effectively establishing a set of warning signs that tell us when the double standard is encroaching.
Before I get started on this list, I want to point out that there are or have been women in every one of these movements, and in most cases those women have been happy to participate. The presence of happy women does not change the fact that a double standard is present, it just means that happiness is possible despite the double standard. If women were unhappy every time they were in a gender-unequal situation, then pretty much all women for all of human history would have been terminally depressed.
Without further puttering about, here is a list of forms of nonmonogamy that have embraced a double standard:
Mistresses. While the idea of the mistress has fallen on hard times recently, for much of western history men with power or money were able to take lovers other than their wives, and typically had a measure of control over these lovers. This form of nonmonogamy did not go both ways, as there were few women supporting men period, much less multiple men. The double standard here has even been encoded into language: there is no male equivalent for the lover/affair definition of mistress. “Master” means something entirely different.
There are a number of forms of paid-for nonmonogamy that lie in the gray area between mistresses and prostitution. For example, in the early 1900’s, it was common for the new single urban women of the era to exchange sexual favors for nice dinners, expensive clothing, and the like. When reformers arrived on the scene to “save” these women, they were shocked to discover that the “victims” had no interest in being saved, and did not see their activities as reducing their eventual chances for marriage (which prostitution probably would have done).
Prostitution and stripping. While frequenting prostitutes has been looked down upon for the last couple centuries at least, it has also been quite common at various points during this time. For example, in the early 1900’s young middle-class men were more likely to lose their virginity with prostitutes than women of their own class.
We can consider these forms of sex work to essentially be commercialized nonmonogamy. After all, there is no requirement in prostitution that a man visiting a prostitute return to the same one, and not have a girlfriend or wife at the same time (though of course the wife or girlfriend might disagree). Paid-for sex or sensuality almost never comes with monogamous strings attached.
Of course, we could argue that the women involved in stripping or prostitution are effectively nonmonogamous. But they are in most cases doing nonmonogamy for the money, not for the enjoyment of it. This is nonmonogamy for men, not for them.
Indeed, these services are almost always provided specifically for men, even today. While there are both men and women escorts in San Francisco, their customers are almost entirely men. Similarly, the only male strip club in San Francisco caters to queer men. The exception would be the underground amateur strip scene among queer women, which does not seem to be as steeped in financial transactions. There are almost no sex work services for women seeking men: there are a handful of escorts and no regular strip nights.
There is something important here. Part of the nonmonogamous double standard involves money flowing a particular way, from men and to women. We can expect that when money is significantly involved in nonmonogamous situations, the double standard is active. This is partly because men still have more financial resources than women on average, but also because men expect to have to pay for nonmonogamy, and women expect to either not have to pay for it, or to be paid for it.
Patriarchal polygamy (actually polygyny). Western culture has been centered in a (not necessarily sexually monogamous) one-man one-woman marriage pattern for the last two thousand years, but one-man multiple-woman marriage is very common in other cultures, and it crops up from time to time in western culture as well. Currently in the United States, there are three distinct groups of polygynists: Mormon fundamentalists, Protestant fundamentalist polygamists, and West-African-American polygamists.
In the last article on this subject, I detailed at length the manner in which polygyny is unfair to women. On the face of it, it is gender-unequal form of nonmonogamy, though relatively limited in scope compared to prostitution.
Again, the gender inequality is encoded directly into language. Polygamy literally means “multiple marriage”, but there is a hidden assumption that the only existing (or perhaps legitimate) type of multiple marriage is one man and multiple women. Because “polygamy” is erroneously used to mean “polygyny”, there is no word describing a multiple marriage with two or more men and two or more women, and there is no word describing multiple marriage with no men at all, or no women at all. Some polyamorists are trying to reclaim the word “polygamy”, using it to refer to their own marriages which are not polygynous. This reclaiming is directly at odds with traditionalist polygynist movements, and nicely illustrates how reclaiming language is important in any liberation movement.
Polygyny is a strong archetype for double-standard nonmonogamy, so it acts as a good warning sign: if the situation is starting to resemble polygyny, then the double standard is probably active. Alternatively, if there are rules or boundaries in place that resemble the “one-man multiple-women” rules of polygny, then the double standard is clearly active.
Cult leaders. It has become a cliche that the leaders of small fringe religions (almost always men) will be having sex with a lot of women in their movement. I think this is probably over-hyped as a way to discredit these religious movements, though it is fairly hard to find counterexamples.
In any case, the “leader getting with the followers” pattern provides us with another warning sign. If nonmonogamy is occuring in a context with a power differential, and the people with more power are more likely to be men, then the double standard is probably active. In the leader/follower example provided by small religious movements, the power is based on charisma, but it could come from other sources, like political power or financial power.
Free love (of the 60’s and 70’s). The free love movement is somewhat harder to critique as unfair to women, because unlike everything listed so far, there were no obvious protocols around gender or who can sleep with whom. So on the surface, free love seemed like an egalitarian approach to nonmonogamy.
However, it is important to remember that our culture treats men’s sexuality and women’s sexuality differently, so men and women tend to want different things from nonmonogamy as a result. While I believe there are no intrinsic (or biological) differences in men’s and women’s desires, the culture effectively produces differences. So if we are going to measure a form of nonmonogamy against the double standard, we also need to take into account whether the particular nonmonogamy is geared more towards men’s desires or women’s desires.
The counterculture of the 60’s was coming out of a time where men were supposed to always want sex, and women were supposed to not give it to them. Women were effectively punished for being sexual: premarital sex was seen as incredibly shaming and dirty for women, and virginity and a good reputation were crucial to marriage and a good life. Men were eager to find a young woman who would “put out” easily, but they were very rare. When such a girl was identified (whether or not she agreed), groups of boys would flock to her for sex, sometimes gang-raping her. (The information in this paragraph is drawn from Make Love, Not War, a history of the sexual revolution.)
Free love (in that era) was the idea that you should have as much sex as much as possible, without regard for society’s rules. It was effectively a gospel of sexual availability. If we look at it in context, this was not encouraging men to change their attitudes: men supposedly already wanted as much sex as possible. Rather, it was an effort to get the women of the era to change their attitudes and behavior, so that men could get what they wanted. While there was much good in this effort (for example, women who were sexually free became much more valued than in the past), feminist and sex-positive critiques of the free love movement point out that free love was largely a way to get women to be available sexually, whatever their actual desires. The movement was therefore not necessarily empowering for women: it simply traded in an old standard of women’s sexual behavior for a new (diametrically opposed) standard.
The crucial warning we can take from the free love movement is that if nonmonogamy is centered around ideas of availability, it is probably reproducing a double standard, because men’s nonmonogamous sexuality is in many ways built around fantasies of access (to sex, to women, to women’s bodies or sexuality). The double standard is not just that men can do or have things that women cannot, but rather that men are getting what they want and women are not necessarily getting what they want. Sheer sexual freedom is not the end goal of a form of nonmonogamy, but rather freedom to do the things one actually wants to do. I suspect that we all meet people on a daily basis that we do not want to have sex with, so “have more sex” is not necessarily freeing unless it is sex with the people we want in the manner we want. If the ability for women to say no to sex is curtailed in some way by a particular form of mixed-gender nonmonogamy, then it is nonmonogamy for men.
“All-access” group marriage. Various mixed-gender utopian communal marriages of the 70’s and 80’s had an expectation that everyone in the marriage would be expected to have sex with everyone else. This is nothing new, but rather a theme that can be found in a minority of utopian communes in various eras of U.S. history. Also, the urge to create these communal sex situations is not dead. I ran across someone on a personals website looking to do exactly that a couple years back, and a girlfriend of mine recently met a guy on a different site who had been in such a marriage, and he was surprised when she objected to such setups (and then stopped talking to him).
These marriages fail the availability test I have just described, and seem overly idealistic from a modern polyamory perspective. What happens when one pair in the group falls out of love, or has a falling out, or just never really clicked?
There is no new warning here, but this is a slightly different twist on the availability question. Instead of just being available in general, women in these cases are expected to be available to a specific set of people who are in a family or marriage. Of course women’s sexual agency is still curtailed, so these arrangements are still typically problematic. Men’s sexual agency is also somewhat curtailed, but I suspect men in these situations would not have trouble avoiding sex with women they were not interested in.
Sex parties. Not all or even most mixed-gender sex parties are problematic from a double-standard point of view, but sex parties do play to men’s fantasies of access. Just think about how the parties are presented: come to a place where a bunch of people, including strangers, will be having presumably nonmonogamous sex. The setting makes it easy to imagine that there is a real possibility of showing up, finding a number of strangers that will happily have sex with you, and then hooking up with one or more of them.
Men (especially newbies) tend to expect that these parties are venues for them to play out their availability fantasies, and so the parties often have to take various steps to remain women-friendly. If they do not, then an uncomfortable situation results where men expect women to be available for sex. Not only are they disappointed in practice, but it tends to kill the party.
Preventing this often means adjusting men’s expectations or behavior. In some cases explicit rules are set around who may proposition whom in order to counter the prevailing tendencies: some swinger parties insist that women do all the negotiating. In other words, rules are set up that explicitly create women’s sexual agency, to counter the loss of agency inherent in nonmonogamous events that encourage availability.
Also, sex parties (swinger or not) often have to be explicitly gender-balanced, because men tend to find such parties more attractive than women, again due to the match with their fantasies. When I was holding play parties in college on the east coast, I discovered that almost all of the men I invited would show up, and about one-third of the women would show. Some of this is simply because nonmonogamy is coded for men, but also this happens because sex parties are a particularly kind of nonmonogamy that is generally for men.
While issues with sex parties again seem to be based around availability again, sex parties add a number of further warning signs for the double standard. If more men than women would show up to a particular nonmonogamous event absent explicit rules, that’s a sign the double standard may be present. If the people organizing the nonmonogamy find themselves creating rules that encourage women’s sexual agency, it may well point out an underlying issue with the setting. (Even though creating such rules is usually a good thing.)
There is another warning we can pull from swinging specifically. Some swing parties encourage sex between women but discourage or ban sex between men. It is important to remember that in straight-ish settings, watching sex between women is a common fantasy for straight men, and watching sex between men is a common fantasy for straight women. So, if sex between women is allowed but sex between men is banned, this is being done to create another “nonmonogamy for men” situation, and the double standard is back again.
To recap, here are the various warning signs that may signal a creeping double standard in any particular nonmonogamous practice. Failing one or more of these tests does not mean that a particular form of nonmonogamy is encouraging the double standard, but it should be taken as a warning sign.
1) Effective polygyny. Is the effective result of the nonmonogamous culture a situation where men are having sex with multiple women, and those women are not having sex with multiple men (even if they are having sex with women)? Are there explicit gendered rules that push the situation in this direction, whether or not those rules are successful? Such “rules” could actually be community standards, the nonmonogamous ideology, or personal expectations. Do the men in these nonmonogamous situations have to face down their jealousy as much as the women do? Do women generally have the freedom to take sexual partners as they desire, or is this freedom somehow restricted?
As with all these warning signs, this is not a litmus test. While certain of the above definitely fail this test (like the cult leader example), free love does not. In fact, given the strong interest of men in the free love movement, the women may well have had more men sex partners than the men had women sex partners. Also, just because a particular situation looks polygynous does not mean the double standard is active. There was a period of a couple years when I had multiple relationships while my life partner (a woman) did not. This was not because she was restricted or because she was not interested, but rather because she was not in a good place for dating after a divorce.
2) Lack of consent, or a focus on sexual availability. Does the nonmonogamous culture create the expectation that someone must have sex in particular context? Or that they should want to have sex? Do women have strong boundaries around their personal space, or is it common to see things like nonconsensual groping? How easy is it for women to say no in this nonmonogamous context?
The flip side of the ability to say no is the ability to say yes. Do women have strong sexual agency in this context? Can they have the sex they want with the people they want?
And of course, we need to take this beyond the realm of just sex. Is the nonmonogamy in general fulfilling the desires of the women involved? (Has anyone surveyed them to confirm this?) This might include desires other than sexual desires: romance with multiple people, a sense of freedom, the ability to be surrounded by people they like, etc.
Are there gendered rules that increase women’s sexual agency? Such rules are almost always a good thing in terms of the double standard, but in terms of warning signs, these rules can be a mixed bag. Are the rules being used to reverse an underlying problem with sexual agency? If so, what is the underlying problem, and is it being fully addressed?
3) Unattractive to women. Do men find the nonmonogamous culture more attractive than women? Are gendered entry rules needed to “gender-balance” the nonmonogamous culture? Are steps taken (as in Mormon polygyny in the U.S.) to eject men from the culture to insure a higher women to men ratio? Do men have a higher barrier to entry than women?
This warning sign is tricky to figure out, because nonmonogamy itself is coded as masculine, and so tends to be more attractive to men in most cases. Sex radical parties in San Francisco often end up with gender-balancing rules, while some swinger parties do not need gender-balancing rules. And as been pointed out to me in the past by swingers, sometimes gender-balancing rules are in place to make it harder for men to bring in bad behavior, not to change the men/women ratio. This warning sign may be best for evaluating particular sex or play party scenes (or other sub-movement scenes, as below in the “hot bi babe” discussion), not as a test for entire nonmonogamous movements. For example, some sex radical parties do need to gender-balance, possibly pointing out a problem, while other sex radical parties do not and yet get similar numbers of men and women. Interestingly, the BDSM play spaces I have attended almost never gender-balance, and rarely have a “too many men” problem: I suspect that the emphasis on heavy negotiation in BDSM spaces helps prevent men’s bad behavior and reduces the need for gender-balancing.
4) Imagery and language apparently targeted at men interested in women. Do the promotional materials for the movement (websites, books, flyers for events) feature scantily-clad model-figure women? If so, are there balancing scantily-clad model-figure men? Do the same materials emphasize the sexiness of the scene and the availability of women in it? Do they emphasize sex itself over romance, desire, or passion?
In some cases, sex party scenes that have trouble with gender-balancing will at the same time put out promotional materials that are clearly more attractive to men than women. This seems illogical to me, but is not too surprising if we remember that the scene in question is more geared to the desires of men: promotional materials for men and more men showing up are just two symptoms of the underlying issue. This can remain true even if the actual parties are run by women, as happens in one sex radical party scene I know. If you are in such a scene and are reading this, I highly recommend putting out materials that are attractive to women (particularly, straight women) as a way of gender-balancing without entry rules.
5) Power imbalance. Does the nonmonogamy depend on a nonconsensual power imbalance? (I say nonconsensual to differentiate this from BDSM power imbalances, which are typically freely chosen.) Does having more power (financial, influential, political, employment-based, etc) tend to lead to more nonmonogamous partners, or more access to this type of nonmonogamy? If so, do men have more access to the form of power in question? Do women fully enter this type of nonmonogamy, or is there some level of coercion or convincing that has to take place?
This warning sign tends to only be useful for the really blatant forms of double-standard nonmonogamy, like traditional polygyny or cult leaders, so long as we are talking about codified nonmonogamy. However, it can be very useful for evaluating informal nonmonogamous arrangements. For example, the propensity of politically well-connected men to engage in adultery or take mistresses.
6) Exchange of money. Is anyone being paid to be in this nonmonogamous arrangement? This payment can take forms other than direct cash exchange, like the purchase of expensive gifts. To point out milder cases: does it cost less money for women to enter this form of nonmonogamy than men? Is this price differential needed to attract women? Is the price of entry very high period?
There is a sex/BDSM club in San Francisco that lets single women and couples in for free or very cheap, while charging single men fifty dollars or more. This club sometimes has a couples-only area, but some of the couples in this area appear to be men who have hired women to escort them to the party. Along similar lines, various fairly left-wing sex parties in the area have hired women to show up, put on stage shows, or otherwise participate in a typically non-sexual way. In each of these cases, the exchange of money seems to be pointing out a party environment that is more friendly to men than women.
In some ways, we can consider these to be the sex party equivalents of “ladies drink free” nights at the bar. And in fact, if we view bar pick-up scenes as a type of nonmonogamy, then the fact that it is cheaper for women to participate points out that this is a type of nonmonogamy that is probably more friendly to men than women, as I will discuss in an example below.
7) Gendered rules around same-gender sexuality. Are expressions of same-gender sexuality between women encouraged more than expressions of same gender-sexuality between men? Are the latter banned via rules? Or effectively banned via selective community homophobia or personal expectations? As mentioned earlier, such situations tend to actually favor straight men’s desires over straight women’s desires in mixed-gender contexts, though they may appear to favor bisexual women.
8) Queer-unfriendly. Are gay men, lesbians, bisexual men, and bisexual women all welcome? Do they feel comfortable in this nonmonogamous culture? Are trans people and genderqueer people welcome, and do any gendered rules take them into account?
It is not easy to tease out the relationship between queer acceptance and nonmonogamy that is friendly to women, but every historical example above is either queer-unfriendly or occurs in a heavily straight context, with the exception of sex work exchanged between men. The simple answer is that heterosexism and just plain old sexism are linked in a number of ways, so an environment which is sexist tends to also be heterosexist.
I again want to stress that none of these warning signs are litmus tests, and a particular type of nonmonogamy might fail a number of them while still being egalitarian or friendly to women. For example, most of these rules stop making sense as soon as you move into forms of nonmonogamy that only include same-gender sexuality, though they can still be applied to nonmonogamous forms that span multiple sexualities (say, open relationships). Also, intent is important, as in the example where a situation looks polygynous, but in fact everyone in the situation is getting exactly what they want.
Now that we have a series of warning signs that can be used to evaluate types of nonmonogamy, it is time to try applying them to a number of relatively modern situations.
Hot Bi Babe syndrome. For those not in the know, this refers to the hordes of couples within the polyamory community (and indeed, within most mixed-gender nonmonogamous communities) seeking a “hot bi babe” for sex or love. I am going to use classic polyamory hot bi babe situation here: a straight man and bi woman in a relationship are looking for another woman to join in an all-way closed triad.
What is key here is intent. Is this exactly what the woman in the couple wants as well, or would she be just as happy in an MFM triad or a situation that is more open? Is she getting what she actually wants as much as him, or is she engaging in a compromise in order to access nonmonogamy at all? In other words, is this a push towards a modern modified form of polygyny? While this is not at all like traditional polygyny because the women have a sexual and romantic relationship, I feel like it can act as a modern stand-in, a compromise between straight men and bi women that reproduces some of the inequality problems of historical polygyny. In other words, if the intent is wrong, this nonmonogamy fails test number one above, in that it effectively reproduces polygyny.
Also, there is an imbalance here, where the man is not expected to get over his jealousy of the woman in the couple seeing other men, but she is expected to get over her jealousy of him with another woman. Due to general homophobia in the culture, this M/F jealousy is taken more seriously than any jealousy the man might feel over the woman in the couple being with another woman. (Though of course that can easily change when things get rolling between the women.) While this jealousy imbalance is not a problem in itself, if the relationship is being formed this way specifically because of the man’s jealousy, that is a double standard. The way this comes out in our warning signs is that it fails test number seven.
While it can be hard to evaluate whether Hot Bi Babe questing is problematic in any particular case, the overall trend is clearly problematic, as evidenced by the sheer number of couples engaged in this search, and the difficult attitudes they tend to start with, and the fact that they are largely unsuccessful. Tellingly, the actual “hot bi babes” they are hunting for are often unwilling to enter into such arrangements, or they demand heavy modifications, like the ability to date outside the triad. In other words, this kind of nonmonogamy often fails test three in that it is not attractive to the target women.
Does this mean that all MFF triads are problematic, and the people looking for them are necessarily engaging a double standard? No. But, if a couple is questing in this manner, then there is a good chance the double standard is active. The usual advice given to such a couple in polyamory forums is to drop or severely modify the quest. Bringing the double standard into the hunt for relationships will make failure much more likely, which is no fun for anyone, the couple or the “hot bi babes”. We see MFF triads succeed all the time in the polyamorous community, but they typically do so because they are somehow different than the classic scenario: they happen serendipitously, the triad is open, an FF couple starts dating a man, etc.
Expensive sexual how-to courses. In my time in San Francisco, I have occasionally stumbled across a certain sort of sexuality or intimacy workshop, that is most obvious by its high price: all-day workshops costing $200-$400 a person and three-hour workshops running at $80 per person. These workshops would often be grounded in a tantra or new age ideology, and sometimes would have a live demonstration or other in-person sensual aspect. Sometimes these groups would cover light BDSM topics, and would charge two to three times what your typical well-informed kinkster would pay for the same exact workshop. It is fairly clear that the target audience is well-off but relatively sexually clueless straight folks, thus the very high prices. However, there is a two-tier pricing system for men and women: all-women events tend to run at less than half the above prices, and events presented by women but aimed at men hit the high end of the price scale. This workshop culture fails warning sign number six above, the exchange of money.
But is this actually nonmonogamy? The workshops seem to occupy a sex work gray area, legal and legitimate compared to strip clubs or prostitution, but still incorporating sensuality at strip club prices. Things become a bit more obvious if we take a look at the effective communities that hold these workshops, which are heavily nonmonogamous. The workshop/self-improvement culture is therefore a gateway into a certain sort of ill-defined nonmonogamy, which ends up looking like anything from free love to open relationships polyamory.
Is there a double standard around nonmonogamy in these workshop cultures? To the extent that the workshops resemble classic sex work, then yes. This was strikingly demonstrated to me when a friend of mine went to a relatively cheap “breast-worship” event in one of these workshop spaces. She was one of a couple of women who showed up, but the event was packed with eager-to-worship men, which effectively destroyed it. In this particular case, the culture had definitely crossed over into “nonmonogamy for men” territory, and we can see that women’s bodies have been set up to be available for a certain sort of consumption, and while the consumption is “worship” instead of the usual objectification, they end up operating in remarkably similar ways.
This points out a problem with new age sexuality culture in general. This culture celebrates women’s sexuality heavily, which is revolutionary. However, in doing so, this culture buys into the myth that women are the sole repositories of sensuality (and therefore men are its purveyors). Nonmonogamy in these circles, while it has a heavy emphasis on women’s positive consent and definitely encourages women to have multiple partners, can easily slip into double-standard nonmonogamy because it does not address this “men get sex, women own it” relationship. I rarely see any workshops that aim to expose the secrets of men’s sexuality to women, and I do not think they will hold a “men’s asses worship” event any time soon. (Though if they do, I am so there, and I will play both worshipper and worshipped.) While this self-improvement culture is largely friendly to women, it has a double-standard undercurrent that can be troublesome, though women definitely enjoy themselves in these contexts. The culture partially addresses this undercurrent in various ways, by creating a higher entry price for men, and by holding frequent all-women or (M/F) couple-only events.
Bar pick-up culture. There is a certain straight culture that goes out drinking in search of dates or hookups, rather than just for socializing. While most of the people in this culture would insist that they are monogamous if asked, or perhaps are currently “dating around” or “on the market”, the culture itself is effectively nonmonogamous. This culture shows up in certain bars, and also can be found in dance clubs and some pool halls.
As mentioned above, often bars try to encourage a gender balance by offering women cheaper drinks. Also, the custom of men buying women drinks, to the extent that it still exists, tends to raise the entry price for men and lower it for women. The disparity in entry price points to a nonmonogamous environment that is more attractive to men than women.
While it is fairly rare for a bar to use imagery or language aimed at men explicitly (though it occasionally does happen), we can see such imagery in dance club advertisements, which frequently have pictures or silhouettes of women on the flyers. However, there is a general understanding in the wider culture that bar and pool halls are hangouts for men where they can meet women, so advertising of this sort may simply not be needed.
The situation really becomes clear when we check out this book and websites like these. There is apparently a pickup skills industry targeting men. One common acknowledgement in these sources is that there are more men looking for women than vice versa in these scenes, presumably because the scenes are unattractive to women.
These tend to promulgate fairly ridiculous expectations of availability: as this post says, “they all want to be seduced”. Which is stunning in its sheer arrogance and cluelessness, as most women at bars and clubs are probably there for reasons other than sex. Pink says it better than me. The focus on pick-up tricks also makes a mockery of consent, as it does not occur to any of these sources that perhaps a woman sleeps with a man because she finds him hot and wants to have sex with him. Instead, they dwell on the practice of approaching any particular woman and somehow convincing her to do so.
While I have known the occasional woman to take advantage of the pick-up scene with spectacular success, I would characterize this scene as highly unfriendly to women, and otherwise “for men” in a number of ways. It almost seems like men’s focus in this culture is to create a nonmonogamous scene where none really exists (or where the pool of interested women is relatively tiny), through a series of tricks, false pretenses, or seductions. We can see here the clash between the wider culture’s expectations of nonmonogamy for men and monogamy for women. I personally think these guys should investigate explicit forms of nonmonogamy, which are so much more rewarding for so much less headache, but of course that would involve leaving normative culture behind, so they are unlikely to agree with me.
I have pulled a couple examples here, at various places on the nonmonogamy spectrum ranging from polyamory to supposed monogamy. Let me leave you with one final thought. Please evaluate your own nonmonogamous scene or culture. Compare your scene to the above list of warning signs. Above all, ask yourself if your culture is friendly to women and satisfies their actual desires. Are there changes (possibly radical) that you could make to your scene that would make the women in it happier or increase the range of women who attend? Whatever your own gender, have you asked a number of women in the scene what they would like to change?