I received this message on a certain dating site, referencing something in my profile:

“The ways in which open/polyamorous dating seems to reinforce heteronormative gender roles despite being such a fringe activity.”

Any more so or less so than monogamous dating? And if so, how? Examples?

It all seems about the same from my perspective, that is, dating is dating.

Which prompted a response that’s fairly relevant, and might spark an interesting discussion (if anyone sees it), so I thought I’d pop it up over here:

First, I want to establish that I’m horribly overgeneralizing and simplifying “gender roles” in this for illustrative purposes. Of course this stuff is fantastically more complicated in real life, but you’ve just asked me to demonstrate a tendency and short of an involved scientific study the best I can do is a thought experiment, which is a horribly flawed tool and I’m aware of that.

Second, let’s use the example of who is supposed to “pursue” vs. who is supposed to be “pursued” under standard normal heteronormative dating, while acknowledging that, again, all of this is much more complicated in real life. We’ll also assume the majority of basically heterosexual people in an environment correspond to their gender standard.

(And I really hate “pursuit” as a dating model, but am using it here for sake of discussion)

Third, we’ll assume for sake of argument that everyone would like to date a lot of people and everyone would like to put in the least possible effort toward that end. Thus, assume neither gender minds being pursued, nor does either gender prefer it overall.

In a monogamous environment, in theory (and very few of them correspond to theory, and I think we can probably take future caveats as read, right?), the maximum number of people one can date at once is one other person. In a polyamorous environment, limits have a lot more to do with time and availability and negotiated discussions and such, but it’s enough to say that the maximum is “more than one” but not infinite here.

In a monogamous environment, while the pool is very large, the maximum rewards are constrained to “dating one other person”. Women in this thought experiment will tend not to actively pursue a partner and men will tend to do so, starting out, although some number will not conform to this stereotype. So, in a first pass, the men who pursue will generally connect with women who don’t, and the women who pursue will tend to connect with men who would, otherwise pursue but don’t have to. Some number of pursuers will connect with non-pursuers. People will then adjust their behavior based on those rewards; non-pursuers who nonetheless connected up with someone else will remain non-pursuers. Those who didn’t connect with anyone will tend to become more likely to pursue, but there will be a small number of these, mostly men; those pursuers who got pursued will tend to become non-pursuers, but there will be a very small number of these, and these will mostly be women. Once everyone has shifted their behavior to the extent they are capable, the vast majority of the field has connected with someone else; when a couple breaks up, assuming that they don’t then get back together, one or both of them will go back to pursuing, and will connect with the next single person of the appropriate gender. We only really get one pass of paradigm-shifting, after which people settle into whatever dating path they’ve chosen.

In a polyamorous heterosexual environment, this changes. The first pass happens basically as above. In the second pass, those who conform to their gender roles get rewarded *again*, and those who do not will again tend to change their behavior. These passes continue until people reach their personal maximum dating value, which many if not most will never reach, and of course breakups happen at a similar frequency but the available field after a breakup is much larger and much more likely to be made up primarily of people fitting their assigned role.

This, obviously breaks down in a handful of scenarios. If we postulate a group that doesn’t, in the beginning correspond to gender stereotypes, there’s nothing to re-emphasize, and the rewards/punishments are evenly distributed. Also, if, say, women find being “pursued” odious, or men find “pursuing” tedious, they’ll tend to stop acting that way regardless of whether they’re otherwise rewarded for it. And, of course, in the real world it’s not a binary choice between “pursuer” and “pursued”, and these things exist on a spectrum that includes things like mutual initiation of contact in the middle. Still, I think this is a pretty good model for showing how polyamory can emphasize these particular things even more so than monogamy under certain circumstances.


7 thoughts on “Reinforcements

  1. I was interested in this too, as well as this:

    “Also, this theory I have that people who love being single and people who hate being single are talking about two entirely different things.”

    I thought about sending you a message about it, but you’ve conveniently posted your thoughts here for my purview. 😀

    The latter interests me because I enjoy being single and, from my perspective, people who hate it are uncomfortable with themselves. What do you think they’re on about?

  2. Well, in my experience, people who love being single and people who hate it are actually involved in two different activities. The most salient difference being that the people who love it are usually dating to some extent, just not in a relationship. the ones who hate it are generally not.

    In particular, this struck me at one point when someone on OkCupid referred to herself as “single” and “monogamous” who was, in fact, dating three people simultaneously by her own admission. If that counts as “single”, then what I was doing when I was single was an entirely different activity that really shouldn’t share a moniker.

  3. Which, I should add, doesn’t mean either of those things is wrong. Someone who is seeing multiple people but not in a capital-R relationship is certainly legitimately “single”. (although I would probably argue her calling herself “monogamous” is incoherent)

    Thing is, when people who are single-and-dating talk about loving it and people who are single-and-not-dating talk about hating it, they’re really discussing two separate states for which we use the same word. Neither is more right or wrong, but they’re talking at cross purposes. I have friends who’ve gone years without a date; that they hated that doesn’t mean they’re not comfortable with themselves, just that they were lonely.

  4. Well, shit, I don’t fall into either category. I really like being single and NOT dating anyone, but certainly having loads of time for myself, my projects and my friends/social life.

    And THAT’s why I believe people who hate being single aren’t comfortable with themselves if they can’t enjoy all those things without moaning about not being joined at the hip with someone else. Maybe they just don’t know how to have fun unless there’s some sort of sex or flirting involved (granted those things are fun too).

  5. Well, or by “hate being single” they mean “hate trying to date and being unable” rather than “hate having time to themselves”. I don’t think it’s reasonable to suggest that someone who doesn’t like being single necessarily is looking to be joined at the hip.

  6. Maybe I just feel that way because that seems to be almost invariably what happens. Monogamous friends suddenly become a lot more scarce and time one-on-one with them follows and if I do get them out to spend some time with me their SO follows, etc. And since you demand reasonableness of me, yes, some of that is to be expected—but really, all the time? I think it blows.

  7. Now *that*, I think, is a real sign of someone who isn’t comfortable with themselves. In a new relationship, sure, you’ll probably disappear from your friends for a bit, but someone who never does anything without their SO could probably use some time learning to be in their own skin.

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