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Popaganda: Feminist Response to Pop Culture Monogamy episode transcript

Popaganda: Feminist Response to Pop Culture Monogamy episode transcript

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Published by Sarah Mirk
Bitch Media's feminist podcast digs into the legal history and logistics of monogamy and open relationships. Featuring lawyer Erik Berkowitz, writer Alex Borinsky, and sex educator Tristan Taormino. Check out Bitchmedia.org for more.
Bitch Media's feminist podcast digs into the legal history and logistics of monogamy and open relationships. Featuring lawyer Erik Berkowitz, writer Alex Borinsky, and sex educator Tristan Taormino. Check out Bitchmedia.org for more.

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Published by: Sarah Mirk on Apr 03, 2013
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POPAGANDA: MONOGAMY EPISODEAir date: April 3rd, 2013SARAH MIRK: This is Sarah Mirk and this is Popaganda, Bitch Media's feminist response to pop culture podcast.[jingle]Question: Are you really going to have sex with one person for the rest of your life? Today on Popoganda, we're digging into the issues of monogamy in pop culture—where does monogamy come from and how is it used as a political tool.It's a touchy subject, monogamy. Mostly, we take it for granted as a goal of relationships—sure, hooking up is fine, but someday you'll find the one person you wantto be with forever and you'll have beautiful babies and there will be rainbows. But monogamy feels so inevitable in a large because it's an idea that's been carefullyconstructed and policed throughout history. Today we'll talk with author Erik Berkowitz about the legal history of monogamy and the strange punishments societiesimposed for cheating. Then we'll discuss the contemporary role of monogamy in winning political support for support for same-sex marriage, and finally talk withrelationship expert and feminist pornographer Tristan Taorimno about how people make non monogamy work for them. All of that mind-expanding conversation in just 20 minutes. Let's go!But first, thanks to our sponsor, She Bop,
a women-owned sex toy boutique that specializes in body safe products and education. Check them out atsheboptheshop.com."ERIK BERKOWITZ: Erik Berkowitz, author of Sex and punshment, 400 years of judging desire. I also work as a civil rights lawyer and advocate for the poor.SARAH MIRK: Okay, so today we're talking about monogamy. What can you tell me about how monogamy is part of our legal system?ERIK: Unfortunately, I sound like Bill Clinton, but we have to define monogamy. If we think of monogamy as two married people who agree to only have sex witheach other, there really isn't a history of monogamy at all. Generally, monogamy from the beginning up until very, very recently was monogamy for wives. Men didn'treally have any requirement at all to be faithful to their wives and women, at least of a certain class, were required very much to be faithful to their husbands.The first death penalty crime that I could find in human history is from ancient Mesopotamia—to put unfaithful wives, to impale them on long poles in the middle of the village. So people took adultery very seriously, but only adultery on the part of wives.SARAH: That's insane, that's like some Vlad the Impaler inspiration.ERIK: I don't know if he knew about it, but he certainly got the point. Monogamy is definitely a very modern concept. Generally what the law demanded was anythingthat kept social order. Men having prostitutes or consorting with concubines or having multiple wives was fine. But women, who bore the children and who were to bereally considered as more than animals but less than humans, were to be kept effectively under guard. So a woman who had sex with other men, a wife that had sexwith other men, certainly there were questions about whether her children were her husband's or someone else's. And I also think it was definitely a threat to malesexuality, to the male urge toward dominance, that if your wife is not controlled, you have a problem.SARAH: What cultures are we talking about here?ERIK: I'm sticking with what I know, which is Western civilization from Mesopotamia through the present. So let me just go through a catalogue. Through the ancientSumerians and Mesopotamians, yes, easily one third of their laws dealt with monogamy. On through the Hebrews, who were definitely a monogamous culture andalso added that men needed to be faithful to their wives. That's fine, you could say it, but what was the sanction, what was the punishment? A man had to be faithfulto his wife, but he could have dozens of wives. He could also consort with prostitutes.On into Greek and Roman society, monogamy was a focus, but really only for upper class woman. A lower class woman, especially a prostitute or a slave, their bodily integrity isn't recognized at all. Here's something interesting: Rome, sort of like us, tightened down on all this. One of the things the first emperor wanted totighten down on was women cheating on their husbands. The response to that, which I think is pretty funny, is a lot of upper class women who had boyfriends andaffairs tried to register themselves as prostitutes to get out of prosecution for adultery. That happened hundreds of times because prostitutes couldn't be prosecutedfor adultery, only married women.SARAH: What would the punishment for adultery be?ERIK: Well, they were pretty creative. They would be registered as a prostitute, who didn't have any social status. Divorce. Losing your husband in that societymeant losing your status. In fact Augustus was so serious about this that he said if you were a husband who knew about your wife's adultery and didn't report her,you could be prosecuted for pimping.So then we move into the middle ages and, yes, the Christian church had the rhetoric about women being loyal to their husbands, but then at the same time thechurch was involved in the prostitution business. Just because a woman had to be loyal to her husband, that doesn't mean she couldn't have sex. If her husband,even though he had lots of affairs, didn't give her sex on some kind of regular basis, she had the right to sue him for it. It's called "marital debt." Men had to servicetheir wive's sexually. And if he couldn't, she had the option of divorcing him.SARAH: Well that's strange because there are several states now where impotence is grounds for divorce. Indiana, I believe, has that law. But I'm interested in howthis rich legal history of monogamy contributes to our pop culture.ERIK: There is just case after case after case of girls being subjected to the same kind of shaming mechanisms that existed in the Middle Ages and theRenaissance. We might do it humorously, there might be a punk group called The Sluts or something to make fun of it, but I think these standards hold over prettyhard. We say it in the last election with questions about birth control.SARAH: That was Erik Berkowitz, author of 
Sex and Punishment 
and a lawyer.[music] ALEX BORINKSY: I'm Alex Borinsky, a playwright and occasional nonfiction writer and I live in New York.SARAH: I wanted to talk to you about the story you wrote for 
called "A California Love Story." Basically, tell me about what you think about the role of monogamy in challenging Prop 8 and in challenging the anti-gay marriage movement. ALEX: I guess I just remember as the trial was unfolding and there were a lot of pushes from marriage equality activists to get the stories that the plaintiffs weretelling out there in public. There was a series of videos, transcripts from the trial. I was fascinated and troubled in a way that took me a while to figure out. I think itwas because the stories reflected such a narrow set of experiences, in terms of both gender norms and monogamy.SARAH: What you've pointed out is that the plaintiffs who're arguing these cases in favor of gay marriage are "the marrying type of homosexual." They've got astable family, they've been dating a long time, they just want to get married—it's a true love, soul searching situation. In this way, monogamy is a political tool to say,"Look, we're gay, but we're just like you married people." What's the drawback?
 ALEX: I think it's detrimental in two ways. One is in the longer-term fight for legal protections for people who might face difficulties in this country and two is for thegay community. I think there's a difference between what we'd say about our lives and the values we have in a conversation—there's a difference between those andthe conversations we want to have about laws. Laws should be like a fence to protect everyone in this country and it's dangerous when values or stories or narratives about what we think as a culture is valuable get inscribed in those laws.SARAH: Are you saying queer communities have a unique opportunity to look different than the history of straight communities? ALEX: Just like there are all sorts of straight people, all sorts of men and all sorts of women, there are all sorts of queer folks. And I know there are many people whohave these great love stories. I know those people and I've heard those stories and I think those people should be able to get married if they want to. But I thinkthere is also something perhaps unique in a lot of gay culture about the ways communities get formed. There are relationships that are not quite romantic, marriage,monogamous relationships that are important and form important social bonds. Whether it's couples that aren't monogamous and therefore don't quite fit into a pair of two or because childrearing gets difficult when you have two men or two women, the improvised structures that have happened in the history of queer communities are really exciting. And that's something I think is really different from broader culture now, where you have a lot of isolated people and isolated twoperson couples. ALEX: How does all this political and legal talk about monogamy in the courtroom affect you personally? Do you feel like in your life you've tried to present as the"marrying type of gay" and you're worried about non monogamous relationships? Or has it not affected you much at all?I've been super blessed in that I've always lived in places where I didn't feel like I had to present in a certain way. I think it's hard enough, whether you're on amonogamous road or a non monogamous road, to have respectful relationships. That's constantly a struggle, I imagine, for everyone. In part, thinking about theseissues and arguing with people about it has forced me to articulate what I value about those non monogamous relationships. But I think they're a hard battle—insome ways a harder battle—to make work in a way that's really respectful and does justice to everybody's dignity.SARAH: I always think it's funny when people describe relationships as a battle. ALEX: Yeah!SARAH: Relationships are full of war metaphors and so are politics. You can use the same exact language to describe trying to be in love with someone as youwould to describe trying to get someone elected president. Why is it so hard just to love somebody? Or many people? ALEX: Right! In some ways, it's nice that it's always about the particular person that you're dealing with.SARAH: Do you think you're be married someday? Or will you always be non monogamous? ALEX: I don't know. It depends on the people involved, I guess. I'm hesitant to make predictions and that's why I want to defend the non monogamous ground ingeneral.SARAH: That was Alexander Borinsky, who's also currently working on a musical about Earth First.[music]SARAH: Next, we're taking time with Tristan Taormino, a woman who is very busy.TRISTAN TAORMINO: Hi, this is Tristan Taormino. I'm a writer, sex educator, filmmaker, and radio host. And right now I'm promoting my brand new book,
TheFeminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure
and I'm also the host of my podcast, Sex Out Loud.SARAH: I know you travel all around teaching workshops to people who, some of them are non-monogamous, some of them are thinking of being non-monogamous, and some of them are just curious about what the heck all this is about. So what are the main questions people ask you in your workshops?TRISTAN: I think for the people who are just starting out, the want some kind of guidance about how to set up rules and boundaries that make sense. I think peopleare always kind of looking for models and examples. Not that they want to make a carbon copy of what those are, but I feel like we have so few role models for people in non monogamous relationships that once you start navigating that territory, it's not like you can look to your parents, your aunt and uncle, that couple youbabysat for for five years. It's not like we have a huge pool of adult role models to draw on and say, "How might I navigate my open relationship and what might itlook like?" So it feels like really uncharted territory. People are constantly being confronted with situations where they want to take responsibility for their own actionsand their own feelings but they also want to grow and learn and get past some of these pre-programmed ideas, like that, for example, we're supposed to be jealous.Our culture places jealousy right alongside love and commitment. So some of it is a deprogramming that people do—they need help and want to feel validated thatthey're trying to work through these really difficult issues when they see all around them elements of jealousy and how jealousy is really encouraged by our society.SARAH: I think you're right that it's in some ways validated. Jealousy is something that we're expected to feel, even though it's a negative emotion. You know, peoplearen't shocked if you're not an angry person, they're not shocked if you're not a spiteful person, but they are shocked if you're not jealous in relationships.TRISTAN: Right, because, again, it's been linked to love in these really particular ways. It's a plot point in every kind of media we have. So when I say jealousy andyou say jealousy and we nod like we're speaking the same language, actually jealousy manifests itself in all these different ways for all these different people. Soyou have to figure out how jealousy manifests itself for you. Are you feeling envy? Are you feeling competitiveness? Are you feeling possessive? Are you feeling leftout? Are you feeling insecure? Is it touching on some of your fears and anxieties? Are you getting obsessive about it? What fears and behaviors does it result in?Sometimes, it's really not a matter of, "I wish my partner weren't doing that" but "I wish I were doing that, too."So it's different for every person and the first step is really unpacking it and seeing what comes up for you and then how to cope with those feelings in ways thatmake sense.SARAH: Some days it seems like monogamy is a fundamental part of society that's just in the ether all around us. How much do you find yourself thinking thatpeople believe monogamy is a building block of modern society?TRISTAN: Oh absolutely, I think even people who are non monogamous believe that because we've been taught that and told that by all these institutions around us.People are rewarded in many ways, some that are practical and material, for being monogamous. I think that there's a lot of pushback and a lot of resistance, there'sthis sense that no one wants to believe it's happening except for a handful of weird people, which is just not true. I also feel like no matter how many signs I point tothat monogamy may not be working for a lot of people or may not be a functional model anymore for the way we live now, there still seems to be a level of pushback."But it's the right thing! It's the natural thing! It's the best thing for the kids!" There's always a comeback for people. It seems like they're desperate to hold up thisinstitution that, if it were so natural, normal, and beneficial, wouldn't need so much propping up. If it's such a solid institution, why do we need to support it so much,like it might crumble if we blow on it wrong?SARAH: Do you remember when you first came to understand that you could be a non monogamous person, that there were other options?TRISTAN: In my own life, the first open relationship I explored was when I was in college. Certainly when it was presented to me, it made sense. It seemed like itshould be an option for everyone, though it was clear even back then that some people wouldn't even consider it an option. For me, it made sense given thecircumstances that I was in and I definitely didn't know anything and was trying to figure out as I went along. It all didn't make much sense and it wasn't verysuccessful, but it was the first try and like lots of things, you need a little practice.

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