What does it mean to be non-monogamous? Are you gaining or losing power? Does your position in a relationship change? But, more importantly, what implications does your membership in the non-monogamous community have on the other communities of which you are a part?
In her article, “Polyamorous Women, Sexual Subjectivity, and Power,” Elisabeth Sheff examines the roles women play and the power exchanges within the polyamorous community. Through her research, Sheff has found that in polyamorous relationships, women gain sexual subjectivity, have the power to redefine themselves sexually, have the power to choose the types of relationships in which they engage, and have more choices in partners. However, through her research Sheff also found that certain classifications of women stand to gain more power in these types of relationships than other classifications of women. In Sheff’s findings, it is seen that white, upper class women gain more relationship power than do their counterparts in racial and ethnic minorities and those with a lower socioeconomic status.
While Sheff explained that the current focus of polyamorous relationships is heteronormative and phallocentric, she maintains that heteronormative view of polyamory. In addition, although Sheff does touch on the diversity of the polyamorous community in regards to race, socioeconomic status, and sexuality, she does leave out a number of other identities that could very well be within this community. Further, while Sheff recognizes that bisexual women have the potential to make up a large part of the polyamorous community, she does not shed light on the fetishization and commodification of these bisexual women’s presence and bodies.
In the article, Sheff recognizes the fact that in the mainstream heterosexual community, polyamory is hyper-sexualized, phallocentric, and heteronormative (Sheff 2). In these “relationships,” everything is centered on the male, as it is usually one male engaging in either sexual acts or relationships with multiple women. Being that these relationships are highly sexualized with multiple women pleasing one man, it brings consumers of this media to see polyamory as male-centered and heterosexual. This can be seen in the popular television show Big Love, which deals with the related, though mostly religiously influenced, construction of polygamy.
Although Sheff realizes that the mainstream community has a one-sided conception of polyamory, she does nothing to combat this in her ethnography. She even goes on to state
“the unknown boundaries of the universe of polyamorous gay or lesbian people make it impossible to collect a representative sample” (Sheff 8).
The idea of a representative sample is preposterous. It is true that it is impossible to collect a representative sample of the polyamorous gay and lesbian communities; it is impossible to collect a representative sample of any community. Communities are never homogeneous; they are diverse, mutable over time, and have the potential to be extremely populous. However, it is dangerous to allow entire sexualities to remain un-researched just because a “representative sample” cannot be collected. While the area of study may not be representative of an entire community, at least those people who are within the community can have visibility. What is more, is that those who are looking for community will have a chance to witness representation of their identity even if it is not an exact match to what they are experiencing. By only including bisexual, polyamorous women in her ethnography, Sheff is making invisible other queer women who engage in polyamorous relationships.
Further, had Sheff included other forms of queer women in her ethnography, her findings would have been less phallocentric. Her critique of the mainstream view of polyamory as being phallocentric and heteronormative falls flat because she did not choose to combat this mode of thinking in her own research. Although the women that Sheff documented seemingly had more power in their relationships, they were still in relationships with men, which continues the idea that men are central to polyamorous relationships.
Sheff also documented the role of bisexual women in the polyamorous relationships that she observed. In her research, she found that women who identified as bisexual were sought out by couples, so that a third could be added to their already established relationship. While Sheff does note that in some situations the bisexual women involved felt disposable – as in the case of Dylan (Sheff 20) – she does not go on to explicate what is really happening: fetishization. These couples are looking for a specific demographic merely to broaden their sex lives, not necessarily another person to live, love, and with whom to grow old.
Elisabeth Sheff’s article on polyamorous relationships and how that affects the power that women hold did achieve some amazing things. It explained the parameters of polyamory, provided the reader with the lived experiences of polyamorous women, shone a light on polyamorous women of color, and demonstrated that the power that women stand to gain in these forms of relationships is affected by race and socioeconomic status. However, this analysis fell short. Not only did Sheff not include a non-phallocentric representation of polyamory, but also she did not recognize the fetishization of the bisexual women that she did include.
How inclusive does a study need to be? Is it possible to be inclusive of all identities at all times? When is it necessary to exclude certain identities? Who gets to make that call? How does this exclusion affect those people within those omitted identities?