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I want to like Dan Savage.

Really, I do. He's witty and irreverent and often the things he says are right on the money.

But every now and then, he says something that leaves me scratching my head and wondering what color the sky is on his planet. He has in the last few years backtracked from the notion that there's no such thing as bisexuality (a claim that seems so absurd on the face of it that it's hard for me to understand why it still has any currency whatsoever), but when it comes to polyamory, it's hard to find anything to like about his ideas.

Recently, he penned a column in which he asserted point-blank that polyamory is not an orientation:

Poly is not a sexual identity, PP, it's not a sexual orientation. It's not something you are, it's something you do. There's no such thing as a person who is "a poly," just as there's no such thing as a person who is "a monogamous." Polyamorous and monogamous are adjectives, not nouns. There are only people—gay, straight, bi—and some people are in monogamous relationships, some are in open relationships, some are in polyamorous relationships, some are in monogamish relationships, some are in four-star-general relationships. These are relationship models, PP, not sexual identities.


What's most interesting about this is that it mirrors almost precisely the attitude of folks who believe that homosexuality is an activity, not an orientation--that there is no such thing as "a gay" or "a straight" but merely those who engage in homosexual activities and those who don't. Dan Savage's words would be right at home in Ministry Today Magazine, which ran an article that claimed something similar about sexual orientation:

The language of “orientation” has allowed us to relinquish our responsibility for specific behaviors, to psychologize our conduct and to label each other as drunkards, abusers, adulterers, liars, homosexuals and so on, based on the sins we are most likely to commit. This system is convenient both for those who do not struggle with any of the sins that happen to be “socially-unacceptable” at the moment and for those looking for an external excuse for their sinful behavior.


This notion is a standard part of gay "conversion therapies" as well, many of which make claims such as "There is no such thing as a homosexual man" and "There are no homosexuals, there are only people with homosexual problems."




Ideas like this are founded in a worldview that is remarkably resilient in the face of contradictory evidence. No matter how many people claim to have been born gay, religious conservatives hang on to the notion that there is no such thing as a homosexual; no matter how many people claim to be polyamorous, there are folks who stubbornly cling to the notion that polyamory is something we do rather than something we are.

Now, in a twisted kind of way, there is something like a kernel of truth to this. There are only people, and some are in gay relationships, and some are in straight relationships, and some have had partners of various different sexes, sexual identities, and gender identities...but in a sense, all of these things might be described as "activities." A gay man is, presumably, physically capable of sexual contact with a woman; a straight man is physically capable of sexual contact with another man.

Similarly, people who are strongly polyamorous are physically capable of having only one romantic partner, and people who are nominally monogamous are physically capable of having multiple lovers.

But such a view is facile. A gay man might possess the physical capability of having sexual intercourse with a woman, but what that ignores is that man might not be capable of being happy in a sexual relationship with a woman. It will probably feel on some level deeply unsatisfying, if not downright unnatural, for a gay man to have a relationship with a woman; and such a relationship would not satisfy the basic needs he has, just like a relationship with another man would likely be profoundly unsatisfying to a straight man.

The same is true of polyamorous relationships. I could no more be happy in a monogamous relationship than I could be in a relationship with another man; such a relationship would feel, on a basic level that seems to have nothing to do with conscious choice, deeply unnatural, constricting, and wrong to me.

I've always been this way. There has never been a time in my life when monogamy made any sense to me, much less seemed like a desirable thing. As a young child, I could not understand the fairy tales about the princess choosing between two princes; since princesses live in castles, it seemed like there was plenty of room for both of them! When I started becoming aware that boys and girls were different, it baffled me why I would be expected to want a partner who belonged only to me.

Some folks argue that the existence of bisexuality proves there's no such thing as innate sexual orientation. This claim makes little sense; the fact that some people are not strongly "wired" one way or the other does not prove that there's no such thing as people who are. (In technical terms, this argument commits the inductive fallacy of division; the idea that innate tendency toward an exclusive sexual orientation exists in humans does not necessarily imply that every single human has such innate exclusive sexual orientation.)

Similarly, the fact that some folks seem to be able to move between polyamorous and monogamous relationships does not demonstrate that, for other folks, a tendency toward monogamy or polyamory is an immutable factor in their psychological makeup. There are people who can only be happy in same-sex relationships, people who can only be happy in opposite-sex relationships, and people who can (to various degrees with various partners) be happy in relationships with a wide range of partners of sexual identities and orientations. Similarly, there are people who can only be happy in polyamorous relationships, people who can only be happy in monogamous relationships, and people who, under the right conditions and with the right partner(s), be happy in a number of different relationship configurations.

All of this seems obvious to me.




Now, to be fair, I have a bit of an advantage here. I am completely, absolutely, irredeemably straight; no matter how hard I try, the notion of having another male lover simply does not work for me, even as an abstract thought experiment. (That's a bug, not a feature; it means there's an entire realm of sexuality I am cut off from, and I resent that.) This makes it easy for me to understand that there might be people who are gay and feel the same way I do about having an opposite-sex partner.

Similarly, I am and have always been polyamorous; it is not possible for me to function in a monogamous relationship and be happy, any more than it would be possible for me to function in a same-sex relationship and be happy; therefore, it's not difficult to imagine that there are people who feel the same way about monogamy.

Dan Savage isn't polyamorous...but he isn't monogamous, either. He's described himself as "monogamish," which as near as I can tell means something like "potentially sexually open in some limited ways." My impression is that he doesn't feel strongly compelled to polyamory or monogamy; ergo, he doesn't have the personal experience that such strong compulsions exist. We all tend to re-create the world in our own image. Perhaps he can be excused for thinking that there's no such thing as "a polyamory" or "a monogamy," since he personally seems to be neither of those things.

But just as the existence of bisexuality does not prove that sexual orientation is a myth, the existence of people who can take or leave monogamy doesn't prove that relationship orientation is a myth.




Ultimately, in a moral sense, it doesn't much matter whether things like sexual orientation or relationship orientation are innate. Well, I mean, it does in the sense that the more we understand about who we are as a species, the better that is...but from a moral or legislative standpoint, it seems to me that simply acknowledging the fact that there are a lot of different people in the world and not everyone has the same needs would go a long way toward increasing human happiness.

That's a tough sell, though. There are many people intent on hanging onto the notion that there is one "right" way to be. The notion that sexual orientation is innate is a powerful one because it plays to our sense of fairness; if it's an unchangeable part of who we are, rather than an action that we do, then discriminating against people who are this way is a bit like discriminating against people based on the color of their skin or the place where they were born or some other factor outside their control.

I personally think that our genes influence our behavior a whole lot more than we're comfortable acknowledging. Hell, I've written before that a mutation of a single nucleotide in a gene that codes for a receptor in our brains can radically alter our sexual behavior. It really doesn't seem like a stretch to me that the interactions of our genes will create huge implications for who we love, how we love them, and what form our relationships take.

I doubt that there's a "poly gene" or a "gay gene." Unless you're talking about peas, genetics is almost never that straightforward; almost everything you learned about genetics in elementary school is a grotesque oversimplification. I mean, hell, we have standard poodles, and the color of their fur is determined by some really complex interactions of no fewer than nine genes. Nine genes, just for their fur color!1 Attributing complex high-order sexual behavior to just one gene seems...silly.

But that doesn't mean that sexual and relationship orientations don't exist, nor that they are not determined by our biological makeup. It just means that there's not one gene that flips the switch from straight to gay or from monogamous to polyamorous.

It's more complex than that. And I wish people like Dan Savage would acknowledge that.

1 In case you're wondering, the genes are referred to as C (the gene for producing melanin); S (pigmentation distribution; there are several mutant alleles, which produce different patterns of spotting, such as Irish spotting and piebald spotting); A (agouti) and E (extension), which affect the proportion of pigmentation (mutant alleles produce lighter or stronger pigmentation, and the interaction of these genes produces browns, reds, and yellows in dogs); B, which controls the size of melanin pigmentation granules (dogs with the mutant gene will be brown rather than black, unless the gene occurs in combination with mutant A and/or E alleles); D, the "dilute" gene, which changes the intensity of pigmentation (and in combination with A and E can result in white or cream colored dogs); R (Rufus), a gene which can cause expression of red and which works in combination with A and E can produce the range of reds from apricot to Irish Setter red); G, a gene that causes coat color to change over time and is responsible for "blue" coat color (which starts out black and fades as the dog matures); and a partially dominant gene called V, which controls coat color in a complex way that produces silvers and silver-greys but which can also lead to coat fading that resembles blues. All of these genes can occur in just about any combination and with dominant or recessive alleles; for instance, BBeevv results in an apricot poodle, unless there is a double recessive mutation of the R gene present, in which case the poodle will be red...if there isn't a recessive D gene at play, which can turn that apricot or red into cream, but not the same cream that you get with BBeeVv, a combination that looks the same but produces different color combinations in the offspring...you get the idea.


Comments

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dawnd
Nov. 29th, 2012 02:50 am (UTC)
not even in peas...
Actually, it's not even necessarily that straightforward in peas. Mendel supposedly "cooked the books" in his original experiments (according to a few famous folks, that that assertion is questioned by others.)

Thanks for a good response.
joreth
Nov. 29th, 2012 02:59 am (UTC)
To say that I am not a Dan Savage fan is a gross understatement. I loathe him and hate the fact that someone gave him such a large platform from which to spout his bullshit.

Yes, he does occasionally say something that I agree with. But when he says something wrong, he is really, damagingly, wrong. And that is not compensated for on the occasions when I kinda agree with him. Because there are other people who say the same sorts of things without the added wrongness that Savage says.

I would like nothing more for the kink, poly, and LGTBQ communities to stop supporting him until he acknowledges and apologizes for his blatant bigotry. Because, and this may shock some people, but being part of a minority group does not exempt one from being a bigot.

And Dan Savage is a bigot with a big fucking reach.
zellion
Nov. 29th, 2012 03:21 am (UTC)
I know he's not the only one, but it's always so *perplexing* to me when a member of a minority who should know what it's like to be discriminated against is such an enormous bigot.
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james_the_evil1
Nov. 29th, 2012 04:58 am (UTC)
Funny timing, he addressed this in a followup in his column today:
(comment he posted from a reader)
@fakedansavage says polyamory a “choice,” not an “identity.” Where have we heard that argument before? Meet the new bigots, same as the old.
@lilyldodge

(his reply)
If all people are naturally non-monogamous—a point I’ve made about 10 million times—then from my perspective, polyamory and monogamy are relationship models, not sexual orientations. (And if poly and monogamy are sexual orientations, Lily, wouldn’t going solo have to be considered one, too?) That was my point. Poly can be central to someone’s sexual self-conception, and it can be hugely important, but I don’t think it’s an orientation in the same way that gay, straight, or bisexual are orientations. People can and do, of course, identify as poly. But is poly something anyone can do, or something some people are? I come down on the “do” side. Lily clearly disagrees.

But as @GetItBigGurl said on Twitter, where Lily and I engaged about my comments in last week’s column, “Openly pondering difference between orientation vs. lifestyle isn’t bigotry, legislating against polyamory is.”

No one is legislating against polyamory here. Just thinkin’ about things.


Not supporting that POV, just noting he posted it today in response to similar criticisms.
tacit
Nov. 29th, 2012 06:35 am (UTC)
There seem to be two "gotchas" in the reply: namely, that "all people are non-monogamous" (well, if we accept that as a premise, then of course people aren't naturally monogamous; that's a tautology!), and that bigotry isn't bigotry if it isn't backed by law.

The notion that "all people" are monogamous is spurious at best. You can't even say all people have two legs; assigning a complex series of behavioral traits to "all people" seems a bit...dubious.

Worse, the notion that "all people" are this or that is a really big tool of oppression. Gay "therapy" centers say that there is no such thing as a homosexual because all people are heterosexual; it's merely confusion/sinfulness/perversion/whatever that makes people act gay.

Legislating against poly is certainly bigotry, but it's not the only form of bigotry. He of all people really ought to know that.
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ashbet
Nov. 29th, 2012 05:03 am (UTC)
I wish the person who had written in to his column hadn't been such an obvious idiot ("a poly" makes me twitch), because it's harder to fault his response, since he's famously snarky to people who are (a) poor letter-writers, or (b) are exhibiting a strong case of missing-the-obvious. Or, in this case, (a) and (b) plus (c), which can be defined as "attempting to justify your case by using self-justifying, provably-imprecise language," which practically *guarantees* a skewering -- he does the same thing to married dudes who come up with creative excuses for why they just haaaaave to cheat.

With that said, I STILL wish to kick his narrow behind for being so unwilling to acknowledge polyamory as being a valid, workable *relationship* orientation, and this letter would have been a perfect example to say "Hey, poly isn't a SEXUAL orientation, but it's definitely a RELATIONSHIP orientation, at least for some people."

And I say this as someone who considers herself to have a bisexual (although not pansexual) sexual orientation, and a polyamorous relationship orientation.

I think that you are right that there's definitely a false binary issue going on -- the fact that some people are neither strongly mono nor strongly poly gives some people the idea that *no one* is strongly inclined toward one end or the other, which I think is ridiculous -- just like the "all people are bisexual" theory, which ignores that there are very, VERY homo/heterosexual people who are not at ALL inclined towards attraction to the gender of their non-preference.

I generally try to say that there are a number of sliders (homosexual/heterosexual, mono/poly, asexual/hypersexual -- although that last one is arguable, because there is a difference between levels of libido and levels of romantic and sexual *attraction* . . . because there are some asexual people who define it as a sexual orientation, and others who will define it as a lack of orientation OR a lack of libido), and that you can graph where an individual falls on these sliders -- arse, I'm tired and it's been ages since I took any math classes, so I am having trouble expressing what the graph would look like, other than 'multiple orthogonal axes.'

I see that column as a missed opportunity, and it's frustrating to see Dan's ongoing blind spot (although he's at least less actively HOSTILE to poly people/relationships than he used to be) about polyamory causing him to continue to misinform his readers -- although I admit that his is an opinion/advice column, I'd still like to see him give GOOD advice on this subject.

(In regards to his 'monogamish' status, what he's stated in the past is that most people need a little sexual variety, but that it's healthy for people in a loving monogamous relationship to find mutually-agreeable ways in which to engage in those activities -- which, reading between the lines, means "emotional monogamy with some degree of agreed-upon sexual non-exclusivity." I think that part of the reason why he's been so anti-poly in the past is that *Dan himself is romantically/emotionally/relationally monogamous*, and he can't understand why some of us want anything OTHER than the occasional piece of strange tail on the side with our partner's approval/participation. In the past, he's seemed baffled and hostile towards polyamorous *relationships*, but he has no problem with open relationships, swinging, etc. It's a weird blind spot, but it's a consistent one!)

-- A <3
ashbet
Nov. 29th, 2012 05:04 am (UTC)
P.S. I LOVED the bit about poodle genetics. Fascinating stuff, thank you!!
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naath
Nov. 29th, 2012 10:10 am (UTC)
Grangh.

I think it of as a fundamental part of growing up - realising that other people do not share my preference. When I was tiny I had NO IDEA that not everyone loved carrots! But I grew out of that. Now I know that there is a huge variety of food preferences. The same is true in every walk of life! People like different things, some of them like a certain narrow thing and nothing else, others change between different things depending on the weather.

Come to think of it I know some supposedly grown up people who can't cope with people's differing food needs...

I guess the thing is that people's varied preferences make them more or less compatible with me as friends and lovers; some people seem determined to act as if all people are the same, which I guess allows them to assume that all people are similarly compatible with them... which would be nice, but it's JUST NOT TRUE.
nicoli_dominn
Nov. 29th, 2012 10:28 am (UTC)
So I'm guessing he thinks people like me - poly people in monogamous relationships - are highly delusional. Well, fuck that.

fallconsmate
Dec. 1st, 2012 10:41 pm (UTC)
illness and worry about me has made my TheEngineer ask that we keep our relationship monogamous. i told him "ok, with the exception of my long distance sweetie whom i dont know when i can see again." and he agreed, but we arent looking for any *new* relationships.

we can be monogamous, and still be poly. hell, we MET on alt.polynewsgoups and we were involved for *years* while i was married to someone else. (who is a good friend again once we got over the divorce-aches.) but we're not changing who we ARE just because we arent actively maintaining in-person poly relationships at the moment.
petemosq
Nov. 29th, 2012 01:31 pm (UTC)
Savage has decent shtick as an amusing (at times) and cantankerous (always) sex/dating columnist and certainly does as advertised. In that regard, more power to him. However it's also fair to say that Dan Savage is not exactly a nice or overly pleasant human being. The chip on his shoulder is pretty big and all of that negates anything positive he might say. Anti-gay activists love him because he does a lot of their work for them.
misskitty_79
Nov. 29th, 2012 05:00 pm (UTC)
Man...
I wish you had a Tumblr (you don't do you?
I would reblog this in a second...
kattale
Dec. 1st, 2012 03:03 pm (UTC)
There is a "share" button on Livejournal for you to post this post in your LJ. Or you could link to the whole post on your LJ, Tumblr, or Facebook. I was directed here via a Facebook Share, and am impressed enough by the points (some angry, but many, especially Ashbet's, well-thought-out) that I'll likely share the link and discuss it in my own LJ.
awfulhorrid
Nov. 29th, 2012 05:52 pm (UTC)
I'm with you on this! I try to like Dan Savage ... I think the "It gets better" campaign was a very positive thing and I have to thank him for redefining the word santorum. That said, he's an arrogant prick, a hypocrite, and a huge example of the "I've got mine, so fuck you" attitude seen in many members of oppressed groups when dealing with other groups facing similar situations.
nicoli_dominn
Nov. 29th, 2012 11:33 pm (UTC)
Yes.
joejohnstun
Nov. 29th, 2012 08:27 pm (UTC)
This is good. It seems like everyone, no matter how supposedly liberal or forward thinking, wants to discriminate against SOMEONE. Makes you wonder who is targeted by your own inborn discriminations..
nicoli_dominn
Nov. 29th, 2012 11:34 pm (UTC)
Unless, you know, you're self-critical and actually try to be a decent human being. It's not that hard; he could learn to do it if he wasn't busy being so damn self-important.
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margareta87
Nov. 29th, 2012 10:53 pm (UTC)
I think there's some confusion arising from the difference in the terms "nonmonogamous" and "polyamorous."

While I agree there's a spectrum of "natural" inclinations (and whether such inclinations are inborn or socialized probably doesn't matter much in practice) from completely monogamous to completely nonmonogamous, if you look at the most widely accepted definitions of the word "polyamory," it's pretty clear that they're all describing a specific set of chosen behaviours. Someone who could never be happy in a monogamous relationship could express their inclination (or orientation, if you prefer) toward nonmonogamy in a number of ways: they could cheat or be serially monogamous, for example. I don't think you can say someone is genuinely polyamorous if they don't include some sort of ethics in their *behaviour,* and ethics absolutely are a choice. And I suspect most people who identify as polyamorous would count those ethics as a pretty important part of that identity, and bristle at the idea that someone who didn't have any might choose to also call themselves polyamorous.

If that's the case--if being polyamorous requires both an inclination/desire/need/orientation/whatever for having multiple relationships, and a commitment to conducting those relationships according to certain principles, that may make polyamory and *identity* but certainly not an *orientation*.

It seems like this comes down to sloppy language use on both Savage's part and ours. While he confused matters by equating "identity" with "orientation" in his response (and should know better), we also muddy the waters when we equate the scale of variation from those who are disposed to be completely monogamous to completely nonmonogamy with some kind of scale between monogamy and polyamory.

Edited at 2012-11-29 11:35 pm (UTC)
kattale
Dec. 1st, 2012 03:08 pm (UTC)
It seems like this comes down to sloppy language use on both Savage's part and ours. While he confused matters by equating "identity" with "orientation" in his response (and should know better), we also muddy the waters when we equate the scale of variation from those who are disposed to be completely monogamous to completely nonmonogamy with some kind of scale between monogamy and polyamory.

THIS is what I think this whole kerfuffle on Dan's column boils down to - muddy language, and the confusion between the concepts of "orienation" and "self-identity".
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(Anonymous)
Nov. 30th, 2012 10:03 am (UTC)
appetites
You need a bad guy to distinguish the good guys. In my lifetime the bad guys have changed from, mafia's to gangs, to national enemies, to blacks, to immigrants, to bikers, or aliens from another planet. And since we're now politically correct we invent our bad guys. The vampire, the undead, and it goes on.

Eliminate all the "I am's" and your left with appetites. I am hungry for= Oh No, you can't seriously be considering eating that?
What do you want when your senses do not stimulate you? If you were blind, deaf and had no sense of smell, could you fall in love with the hands that massaged you no matter what gender they were attached too? Could you be attracted to the firm hand and well as the light touch?

Biodiversity is a fact of life…people need to live with it.
http://eowilsonfoundation.org
safadancer
Nov. 30th, 2012 05:04 pm (UTC)
I'm poly and single
I agree with most of the other commenters on here; Dan Savage saying that poly is "something you do" discounts people (like me) who are poly and single, or like the above poster who is poly and in a monogamous relationship. If I consider myself to still be poly even if I am not actively "doing" it...wouldn't that mean it's something I *am*?
ashbet
Dec. 1st, 2012 06:28 pm (UTC)
Agreed!! I realized that I had a poly *relationship* orientation back in high school (and was very frustrated that despite the fact that a friend of mine and I were perfectly happy to share the friends-with-benefits services of a mutual friend, everyone around us had to turn it into DRAMAAAAHHHH and it all fell apart.)

Again, in high school, one of my best friends and I used to go out on triple-dates with her then-boyfriend, and we'd giggle a lot about confusing people at theaters/etc. by walking hand-in-hand and each giving him a kiss on the cheek when we'd get up to go get snacks . . . and I remember wishing at the time that it was real, and that it was something that I *could* have.

I loved the idea of being part of a triad (note: my tastes have expanded to include other poly configurations since then, but 'triad'/'vee' were my first inclinations), and I was still working through the realization that I was bisexual -- it took a while, I grew up in Minnesota in the 80's, I thought you HAD to be either straight or gay, and since I liked men, I obviously wasn't A LESBIAN (which was a Thing, at the time), so I was mostly just confused and wistful.

And I thought there was something wrong with me, because everyone was SUPPOSED to be looking for their One True Love, and while I was genuinely in love with someone throughout most of high school, I was also sexually *and romantically* attracted to someone else, and I kind of processed it as one of the relationships as being my 'good' side (pure, romantic love) and the other was my 'bad' side (dark, a little self-destructive, wantonly sexual.)

I kind of want to go back and give my 15-year-old self a hug and explain some shit -- and I'm glad that I've raised my daughter (now 20) to communicate with partners/prospective partners, to be honest and forthright about her wants and needs, and to consider all possibilities of relationship structures. She's in a monogamous long-distance relationship of 5 years' duration, because that's what works for her and her Boy . . . but I love that they *talked* about whether monogamy was right for them, and considered all of their options before making the choice that has made them happy :)

So, yeah -- I definitely would class myself as someone who has a fairly strong polyamorous romantic/relationship orientation, because I've been true to type ever since I started having/wanting relationships, and I've tried monogamy several times, but it just doesn't work for me.

And I consider myself poly whether or not I have any relationships with others at any given time -- I spent 12 years with one partner, the first 4 of which could have been mistaken for "monogamous" because I wasn't dating anyone else at the time, but I was very clear during those 4 years that I was still poly, I just didn't currently have other relationships. It didn't change my identification or my *intentions* or my *desires*, I just hadn't met anyone else who I *wanted* to date!

-- A <3
avibunny
Dec. 1st, 2012 03:39 am (UTC)
Have you sent him a link to this post? He said in his blog that he was planning on dedicating a future column to this issue due to the feedback he got. I would prefer if some of the feedback was as thoughtful as your article, so if you haven't sent him a link yet, someone else needs to.
(Anonymous)
Dec. 1st, 2012 04:25 am (UTC)
I've never liked him and continue to be baffled by all the love sex- positive liberals give him. All I see is a sexist, trans-phobic advice columnist.
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