Book Review by Carolyn Gage
Polyfidelity: “The state of being in ongoing erotic intimacy with more than one woman concurrently while being honest about such involvements with each lover.”
So reads Celeste West’s definition of polyfidelity, as given in her book Lesbian Polyfidelity: A Pleasure Guide for All Women Whose Hearts Are Open to Multiple Sexualoves, or, How to Keep Nonmonogamy Safe, Sane, Honest, & Laughing, You Rogue! The packaging and promotion of this book appear to offer lesbians a liberating alternative to monogamy, which West (with some justice) describes as “serial betrayal.”
But does her book deliver?
In political campaigns, it’s common knowledge that it’s easier to attack the incumbent, because the challenger has no record in office. Monogamy is the prevalent model for lesbian relationships, whereas “polyfidelity” is not a popular practice or ideology. Everyone knows that monogamy is fraught with jealousy, possessiveness, boredom, merging, claustrophobia. It’s easy to see how monogamy as an institution has allowed men to gain control over women’s bodies, and it’s easy to prove statistically that monogamy doesn’t work.
But, if elected to lesbian relationship office, would polyfidelity have any better record? Let’s look at West’s sample of “polyfideles”:
Of the twenty-five practitioners of polyfidelity that she interviewed in depth for the book, only five were “single.” The rest were in some form of couple-bonding, albeit non-monogamous. One lesbian she interviewed was in a sexual relationship with a married, bisexual, closeted politician. The wife would appear with her husband at public functions, while her romantic trysts with the lesbian were kept relatively clandestine. Did the husband’s tolerance indicate enlightenment, or was it just a reflection of the fact that his wife’s homophobia and her lover’s complicity effectively neutralized any threat the relationship might pose to his territorial rights? Is this a model for liberation, or just your garden-variety monogamous marriage with a mistress on the side?
West, however, does not use the word “mistress” in referring to these lovers of women who are already in live-in, spousal relationships. She prefers the term “odd women,” and in her enthusiasm for trios, she approves the hiring of therapists for the purpose of sexual fantasizing. West also endorses the hiring of prostitutes, waxing enthusiastic about the discounts many of them are willing to offer women, without spoiling the party by going into the reasons — rape, battery, mutilation — why these women might be motivated to offer such a discount.
Another interviewee speaks of having to receive cards and gifts at her office, so as not to upset her live-in partner. West herself admits to tying scarves around the front door and the bedroom door to alert her live-in that she is entertaining an odd woman.
Polyfidelity entails many complicated rituals, including partners sharing their “trigger points” with each other. Such trigger points can include discussing the odd woman’s successful career or painful childhood while in bed with the spouse, allowing the odd woman access to the partners’ home, buying flowers for the odd woman but not the spouse, and not giving advance warning about an upcoming date with the odd woman — presumably so the spouse will have time to hunt up (or rent?) an odd woman of her own for the night.
These trigger points, of course, have everything to do with jealousy. West devotes six entire chapters to this subject — one that polyfidelity is supposed to cure. Her advice on how to detach and distract yourself with other activities sounds less like a revolution in consciousness and more like something out of a 1950’s marriage manual: “What to Do if Your Husband Starts to Wander.”
The chapter on truth-telling was even more confusing. Honesty is built into West’s definition of polyfidelity, but it appears that not all truths are created equal. Take the one-night stand, for example. She advises readers to admit that sexual encounters are often sheer, trifling frivolity which, she goes on to assure us, have no meaning. So what’s to tell? Much of the polyfidele’s behavior, apparently, falls under the rubric of privacy, which she defines as an excellent alternative to white lies. If pleading privacy fails, however, readers can fall back on her advice that compassion is as much a part of integrity as honesty. In other words, polyfideles have to be honest about all their relationships — except for the ones that don’t count, the ones that aren’t anyone else’s business, or the ones that might cause someone pain.
Perhaps my problems with West’s logic are theological. This is by no means a secular book. West is a Buddhist, and on the basis of sheer number of religious citations, Lesbian Polyfidelity could hold its own against any Christian tract on monogamy. It would appear that Buddhist detachment (or at least West’s formulation of it) is as critical to the practice of polyfidelity as Christian morality is to monogamy.
All of this sounds like controlling behavior and denial. A closet is a closet, “don’t ask, don’t tell” is denial not tolerance, and “out of sight, out of mind” describes a dissociative disorder. But if the compromises of these “polyfideles” seem hypocritical and self-deluding, they are no more so than the compromises made by many monogamous couples. My issues are not with nonmonogamy or having concurrent sexual relationships. They are with the book’s failure to live up to its subtitular promise to provide a “safe, sane, honest, & laughing” alternative to monogamy.
What is the reality behind all these scarves around doorknobs and flowers sent to the office? Just why are the partners choosing to stay together under circumstances that provoke six chapters on jealousy? Could it be because of money? Could it be that the average lesbian cannot afford to own a home unless she buys it with a partner? Could it be dependence on joint income by reason of old age, or disability? Could it be co-parenting commitments? Could it be that the live-in partner provides the financial safety net that families of birth traditionally provide for non-deviant daughters?
Do odd women open joint bank accounts, take out life insurance in each other’s names, leave their estates to each other, buy houses and raise children together, shoulder the financial burdens and caretaking responsibilities when major disability strikes a lover? Not very roguish. For many women, the disadvantages of monogamy are small prices to pay for the security coupledom can offer.
In order to deconstruct monogamy, we need to address the reasons why lesbians form monogamous couples at all. The fact that monogamous couples are willing to offer these services to each other in order to protect their exclusive rights of sexual access to a lesbian is disgusting, and based on the model we have inherited from heteropatriarchy. Perhaps the best way to dismantle monogamy is not with a book on philandering, but one on ethical community-building.
Any book on sexuality that omits the perspective of the incest survivor is ignoring the testimony of our culture’s expert witnesses on the subject. Because so many women are unrecovered or amnesiac survivors, a book like this can tend to reinforce and valorize the behaviors they learned from the men who despised and abused them. In the words of lesbian-feminist writer Elliott, “Sex is so loaded for most of us [incest survivors] — we believe we have to put out to be loved or be worthy of being loved, we act out in hyper-sexualized ways we learned as abused children, we don’t ultimately trust anyone who wants to have sex with us (or, usually, all three of these) — which of course leads to relationships which move beyond sexual desire. That these ‘post-sex’ relationships are seen as bad is just more incest culture. That West’s version of polyfidelity pretty much encourages lesbians to bring in ‘odd women’ to keep them in that hyper-arousal, ‘life built around sex’ stage is sick, really. That’s the way men use mistresses and prostitutes — to keep sex shallow, frequent, away from deep bonds and deep responsibilities…basically, to keep sex dissociated.”
West’s chapter on health issues mirrors the same obsession with pleasure at the price of denial. Enthusiastically promoting unsafe sexual practices, she discounts the possibility of asymptomatic carriers of sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, existing among lesbians. West’s take on sexuality as psychologically and physically harmless is a throwback to the heterosexualist propaganda of the sixties, inappropriate for an era of increased immune-system dysfunction for women and for a population with such a large percentage in recovery from incest, other forms of sexual violation, and addictions. Needless to say, recovery is not a roguish concept, and West tells us that our personal past “has no reality other than what our thinking tells us about it.” But we can’t control the way in which our unconscious dictates our behavior from behind the scenes, causing us to justify and mindlessly adhere to roles — like that of the mistress or the adulterer — learned in our families of birth. Lesbian Polyfidelity reads like an instruction manual on how to fragment, objectify, dissociate, and deny.
Is there another form of lesbian nonmonogamy, one more progressive than the one West describes? Surprisingly there is, and it’s actually prevalent in our communities. Elliott describes it: “The only really radical nonmonogamy I see lesbians doing is the bonds we often keep to ex-lovers…many lesbians who swear up and down that they are monogamous would and do fly across the country to help an ex-lover, lend her money, watch her kids, take her in if she’s desperate, hold and comfort her, go on vacation with her, etcetera. This is truly, wonderfully, radical, since it is about a bond that is both beyond sex and/or access to sex and not about being biologically related. It is also completely hidden by not being named and honored within our communities. We do it, but we don’t call it anything. Our loss.” Indeed.
Lesbian Polyfidelity by Celeste West. San Francisco, Booklegger Publishing, 339 pp. $15 paper; $25 hardcover. 415-642-7569
Carolyn Gage, is a lesbian-feminist playwright and author of Like There’s No Tomorrow: Meditations for Women Leaving Patriarchy (Common Courage Press, 1997).