Semaine Sémantique

Carrie and I have this unfortunate tendency to get along like gangbusters, which means that finding things to argue about takes a lot of energy*. As often as not, this search for debate ends up with our arguing niggling semantic details about a word or turn of phrase. I tend to be taking a more definitional approach, and arguing against unclear language; Carrie’s point is usually that something that expresses a particular meaning is sufficient, even if the nuance isn’t perfect. These are tendencies, though, and both of us shift and flex around them, which is unsurprising given that we rarely actually disagree on whatever we’re arguing about. Also, I’m sure she’ll think I’ve mischaracterized her point here, but it’s my pulpit, so… nyah.

Anyway, this week has featured a lot of discussion about various pat phrases that poly/open communities tend to bandy about, many of which are pet peeves of mine. Usually, the peevishness is not because I disagree with the intent, but because I think the phrase poorly expresses the concept that one is ostensibly trying to communicate to the monogamous listener.

Some examples:

  • Poly relationships are just like monogamous relationships, except with more people. – I do understand what this is meant to get across–the idea that poly relationship problems are essentially the same as mono ones, and require the same skills–but this phrase is meaningless. Here, try this: “Many is just like one, except that you have more of it”. The problem is that the very definitions of the two words are mutually exclusive. You can’t have a relationship that’s “just like a monogamous relationship, except with more people”, because that’s the only definitional point of the word monogamy. It’s not that the concept here is mistaken, it’s just that the phrase is anti-tautological–“ceci n’est pas une pipe”.
  • A better phrase would be something like “poly relationship skills are just like monogamous relationship skills”, or something along those lines. The intent is to express that these relationships are not completely alien to what someone monogamous experiences, not that the two are “just [a]like”, when they’re obviously not.

  • It’s not about the sex. Yes, the relationships are the point. But, you know, it’s at least a little bit about the sex–otherwise, there wouldn’t be any sex involved. The connotation here is meant to be “it isn’t all about the sex”, but to monogamous ears it sounds like “it isn’t at all about the sex”, which is just obviously silly.
  • Beyond that, though, why does this need to be stated? Okay, sure, it’s not about the sex, but being enlightened beings we wouldn’t care if it were about the sex. The phrase just seems defensive to me, an assumption that being “about the sex” is wrong. This sticks with me much like the way many polys will call someone a “swinger” with a snide sneer if they sleep around without involving relationship-rules wankery. It presumes that the culture at large is correct to treat sex as something that is only okay in some contexts and even then has to be secondary. What if the sex were the point of one of someone’s relationships? Why would that be bad?

  • I don’t have meaningless sex. Well, who does? Isn’t that a physical impossibility, given the hormonal releases involved in sex? It’d be pretty difficult not to care about someone after you’ve had a bunch of oxytocin dumped into your brain. I think “meaningless sex” is pretty much a bugaboo for people to dump on whatever the “other” of the moment is–polys think swingers have it, monos think polys have it, everyone thinks monos have it when they cheat–but it’s essentially mythical. I’ve had sex with people whose names I don’t even know, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t meaningful, or that it didn’t involve some amount of deep connection (hur), or that I could ever forget any of those people, or that I don’t still have warm feelings for them.
  • What’s meant here, I suppose, is to say that one doesn’t just have willy-nilly sex with any and all comers (hur), but it’s another defensive phrase that is a) unnecessary and b) implies a negative judgment on those who do which I think is probably unintentional. “Meaningless” is meaningless here without some explication of exactly what “meaningless” means, and why it’s a bad thing.

Being a poly-friendly guy who’s been largely monogamous, I’ve spent a lot of time straddling the two (hur). I’m shifting a little close to the other side (not that I’m poly, just open, but that’s another post), but I still feel like I spend a lot of time translating from one group to the other. No, poly/open people are not wanton sluts just in it for the getting off, nor are monogamous folks less evolved beings who can’t grasp the true meaning of love. Neither is poly the ticket to the crazy sex life that someone monogamous has always wanted, nor monogamy a sure-fire way to repair your sense-of-self after a poly relationship melts down. I’d love to tackle a few standard mono phrases that don’t quite work, just to establish balance, but monogamy is hardly a close-knit community with its own memespace, so that’s a little bit difficult. Maybe I’ll ponder it for the next post.

* Simply not arguing about anything is not an option. That’s like suggesting that heavier-than-air objects should just try not falling all the time, or that it would be nice if two and two would just go ahead and equal five this once.

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5 thoughts on “Semaine Sémantique

  1. One of the points I was arguing on the meaningless-sex thing — which I think is relevant to the topic — is that monogamous relationship structures tend to dichotomize the kinds of sex as “meaningful” and “meaningless.” Sex with your SO is meaningful; sex with others is supposed to be meaningless if it happens, and if it’s not, it indicates a change of loyalty. The only accepted forms of in-between feeling seem to be associated with the dating process, where you are trying to bifurcate the experience into either a) this person is my One True Love, or b) this person is not my One True Love, and we therefore part ways. Until you establish this, though, there are some permitted nuances. It’s certainly a lot more complicated than that in practice, but this is the general pattern.

    I think a lot of poly people are just trying to point out that this is a myth. The idea of meaningless sex is derived from a false dichotomy, and perpetuated by those who are pressured to protest too much. There are many kinds of sexual relationships, and one does not negate another. Sex isn’t placed on a pedestal the way it often is in monogamous relationship structures. It’s not the be-all and end-all of relationship definition. Therefore, it’s Not About The Sex.

    But then, that phrase, too, is protesting too much.

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